Fan Fiction FFIV: For Want of a Paladin

Azecreth

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So,an AU and a slight Fix Fic to account for video game mechanics/logic. Like I said, I only go for ambitious projects. :sup: Reviews, concrit welcome.

Crossposted from here on FF.Net, by yours truly.

[HR][/HR]
Chapter 1

The cave was dark, tendrils of white slipping past the two travelers as they made their way along the tunnels. They held their weapons with wary preparation, ready for any variety of monsters to attack, in which they were not disappointed, assaulted by bats and goblins, dark blade and spear soon slick with black ichor as they dispatched one foe after another. Each fight taxed them a bit more, ramping up their nerves as they headed further into the cave, bracing themselves for the encounter with the Mist Dragon they knew guarded their destination. It was responsible for the poor vision inside the cave, the white that sought to blind and confuse them outside of the reach of their torches. But still they pressed on, doing their duty for their king, and for their country.

Cecil Harvey led the way, dark blade in hand as he strode confidently forward, wrapped in the black steel of a Dark Knight. It was a position he had chosen at the behest of the King, who was his adoptive father. Since then, he had served faithfully and well, rising through the ranks to become Captain of the Red Wings, the primary military force of Baron since it's transition to Empire. But recently, as Baron had shifted it's policy to a more militaristic stance, he had begun to have doubts. When he had returned from Mysidia, those had been acutely visible to any saw him. His confidence was diminished, he seemed absentminded, and even the King had seen enough to call his loyalty into question.

Kain Highwind followed behind, lance at his side, wearing the blue armor of the Royal Dragoons. Though they had fallen in favor with the rise of the Red Wings, and the increasingly feral nature of dragons which made it impossible for them to be tamed, they were still highly respected amongst the citizens of Baron,. Kain had followed in the footsteps of his father, and was a close friend of Cecil and Rosa. And that was why he was here, because he had dared to step up and defend his friend in front of the King, who stripped him of his title and may have even had him banished. They should count themselves lucky that he had been willing to let them redeem themselves with this mission.

Kain glanced to the large Ring that the King had given Cecil, currently looped by a strap to the satchel on his back. Something was off about it, the deep red coloration and twisted appearance imprinting itself on his mind, and he found himself wondering what they were supposed to do with it when they reached Mist. He could only assume that another representative of the Empire would meet them there, and that he (or she) would take the Ring for whatever reason it was needed, presumably as a gift to some local dignitary or something like that. But surely that was a mission that could be handled by the Red Wings. There was no need to send two of the strongest fighters in the kingdom on an exhausting trek through the mountains to bring it there. And even though he could understand the reasoning why, since it was a way for them to prove themselves, he found himself disturbed by what the motivation might be. And he could tell Cecil was just as disturbed.

.Turn back... The words sounded like a whisper, twisting around the Dragoon and Dark Knight, as elusive as the mist that surrounded them, yet still able to be understood. The grips tightened on their weapons as they both looked around, keen eyes seeking to pierce the veil that had been laid over their surroundings.

"What? Who's there," Cecil yelled in response, his tone more curious than defiant or bold. He wanted to know who was here, not to issue a challenge and invite combat. But his question went with nary an answer, and the two warriors exchanged frowns before continuing onwards, weapons still at the ready.

A little while later, having handily taken down a group of goblins which had attacked them, and having progressed further towards the exit, the voice spoke again. It was as before, twisting and turning, not coming from one particular direction and still ethereal, though it seemed more solid now that they were closer to Mist. But it was also more insistent, more forceful, like a pressure pushing on their minds, a presence that said that they should go away, should turn and head back to Baron now, before it was too late. Leave at once, it urged, causing Cecil and Kain to prepare for a fight yet again.

"Is that the Guardian of Mist," Kain wondered out loud, though that seemed the case since he didn't know what else it might be. But neither would be dissuaded from their mission, and they pressed onwards.

At last, they had finally reached the entrance, and were considering the notion that they had escaped the wrath of the Guardian, or that it was busy elsewhere, when mist starting to gather, obscuring the exit they knew where nearby as it became thicker than it had ever been in the cave. The hair on the back of Kain's neck stood up, and he knew now, if there had been any doubt, that this mist was not natural in the least.

The voice spoke out again, more solid now, and definitely coming from the largest concentration of mist. Knights of Baron, I see. The voice was more contemplative, but still as firm in it's resolve that they should not risk whatever fate may come upon them soon.

"Who are you," Kain called, lance at the ready.

The voice ignored his question, louder and more authoritative as it reiterated it's demands. Leave now, or suffer the consequences.

"Show yourself," Kain demanded, not about to turn back now, and tired of answering to the Mist. If someone was going to force him to do something, he wanted to see them.

You choose to ignore my warnings, the voice asked, as if sad about what it would have to do if they refused to take heed of it and leave.

Cecil stepped forward to confront the Guardian, his dark blade thrumming with energy as he did so. "We have to get to Mist! We're not turning back," he replied defiantly, if lacking a bit of the fire he had had before.

Kain could swear he almost heard a sigh rush around them as the mist began to change shape, gaining visible outlines as it blocked the cave exit. "So be it," it growled with a sad resolve. The two both took a step back as the mist resolved into that of a white dragon, wispy wings and gleaming cerulean blue eyes looking at them, fading away into a misty lower half. The two warriors fell into ready stances as it came at them. Seemed it was time for a fight.

They nodded to each other before springing into action, like a well rehearsed dance routine that both had become familiar with through years of combat together. Kain went high; Cecil went low. The Dark Knight lashed out with purple steel dark energy flowing through it as it struck the dragon's misty form. There was no way to know if it was actually doing any damage to the creature, so they would just have to hope, or else this would be a short fight.

Kain maneuvered swiftly through the air, landing slash after slash with his lance, to rapidly jump off again while dodging solid tendrils of mist. He had to be careful with the cave ceiling and falling rocks from impacts, but it was nothing he hadn't been trained for. But maybe that made him overly cocky, as a tendril wrapped around his leg and arrested his flight and slamming him into the ground with the crunch of shattering rock. That attracted Cecil's attention, as he saw his friend getting pummeled into the ground by the Mist Dragon.

"Kain," Cecil called as he rushed to his defense, silently taking the exertion as a black wave thrummed from his sword to slice through the misty tentacles, leaving them to dissipate into the background mist of the cave. Enemies gone from the immediate area, Cecil reached down to help a battered Kain to his feet, but was waved off by the Dragoon, who took to a knee before rising back up with a crack of his neck and an in place jog to loosen him up before they went back into the fight.

But by then the situation had changed, to their mutual confusion. The dragon was gone, having dissipated back into mist. But now the mist that surrounded them was seemingly more solid, more resistant, as if it was actually slowing their movements. And considering that the dragon they had been fighting was made of mist, it didn't take the two soldiers long to realize that the dragon was actually around them in mist form. That thought chilling them, and no apparent way to hurt the dragon, the two resumed their slow walk, pushing against the resistance of the mist as they moved towards the exit. This had the intended affect, as the mist vanished and the dragon reformed to stop them.

And so the deadly dance began again, Kain and Cecil working in tandem to strike at the dragon while dodging it's attacks, though they couldn't dodge everything. But it began to be evident that they were wearing it down, shrinking as Mist dissipated to retain it's form from blade strikes. Waves of energy rolled from Cecil's sword as Kain leapt and dove at the dragon, the fight going on.

With an unearthly wail that sounded like the cry of a dragon, but with some more potent, emotional, human element to it, the dragon collapsed from the multitude of hits it had taken, form slowly vanishing with the mist and leaving Cecil and Kain alone in the now clear cave. They looked from where the dragon had been to each other, letting all that tension go as they took comfort in their continued survival. From the exit to the cave they could see the town of mist in the distance, and they didn't waste any time in setting off for there, to complete their task.

As they entered the town limits, something began to change. Cecil had removed the ring from where he had stored it in preparation for the anticipated hand off, and thus he was the first one to notice what was happening.

"That's odd, the Ring is glowing," he said with a puzzled expression, a sense of dread growing inside of him as it brightened from a dull glow to a bright red. A hissing sound began to emanate from it as it brightened, the carvings in it twisting and morphing. "Ah," he gasped, dropping the ring and shaking his armoured hand. "It burned me."

Kain wasn't paying attention though, eyes fixed on the ring as it's transformation continued. It was growing now, expanding and becoming larger as it began to float in the air. The hissing sound increased, and both watched as cracks began to appear in the ring, iron and enchanted steel falling away to reveal, to their horror, a swarm of Bombs. They readied their weapons, but it seemed that whatever magic had put them in the ring also identified the two as friends. For instead of attacking the Dark Knight and Dragoon, they flew off into the town, cackling and spewing flames.

"What..." Kain was speechless as the town descended into chaotic anarchy, houses going up in flames while cackling Bombs chased down defenseless citizens. It was wanton destruction as the town burned down in front of them.

"This is it? This is why he sent us here?" Kain shuddered to hear Cecil, the Dark Knight's voice cold as the mountains, a far more deadly version of hot rage. He knew that this wouldn't end well. But still, he couldn't argue with the shock of it.

"We've destroyed the entire village," Kain replied as he continued to watch the tragedy unfold.

Cecil didn't look back as he strode into the village, smiting down Bombs left and right with his sword, trying to save who he could. But it was a losing battle, the Bombs just too numerous, though the fact that they paid him no mind worked to his advantage. Kain followed as well, spurred to action by the example of his friend, though he had no idea how many the few who were saved by their actions were, and who had been killed by monsters or perished in the fire. As they walked, Kain thought he overheard Cecil muttering to himself, but it was unintelligible over the screech of bombs and the crackling of flames.

The streets were deserted now, everyone have either fled, been killed, or was trapped. It was for that third group that Kain and Cecil were looking for, cooperating to move debris out from entrance ways and check for survivors. It was, for the most part, a fruitless task.

It was as Cecil moved through yet another house, having slammed the door aside with a plated shoulder, that he found her. A little girl, who couldn't have been more than ten years old, with bright green hair, was crouched beside a bed in the back room, rocking back and forth while letting out sniffling whimpers. Her clothes were covered in ash, dust and dirt, though the suspenders helped with that, the blue contrasting with a yellow t shirt. Somehow the house hadn't been touched by the fire or the Bombs for the most part. But as Kain came over, both of their gazes were drawn to something a bit more heart wrenching. Lying on the bed, arms folded, eyes closed, was an older woman. She laid on top of the sheets, with relatively little dust or ash on her, and their trained eyes immediately came up with an answer. She was dead.

Cecil stepped forward to place his hand on the girl's shoulder. But she leapt up and back, back to the bed as she stared in fear at the two men, who shared nervous glances. "You have to get out of here," Cecil urged. "It's not safe."

"No, I'm not leaving mommy," she replied. "Somebody killed my mommies dragon. And mommy went with it to the happy place in the sky." Her blue, watery eyes widened as something occurred to her, looking at the armoured figures standing before her, both of whom had had the concurrent thought about the connection between the woman and the dragon they had fought in the cave.

"I've heard of people with the power to summon monsters," Kain said, doing his best to hide his shock. "Summoners, to be precise."

Cecil bowed his head. "Then we are the ones responsible for killing her mother by killing the dragon."

Kain nodded in return, but was interrupted by a strangled gasp before he could respond. The girl had taken shaky steps back, away from the men who had appeared in front of her, her lip quivering as what she had suspected but hadn't wanted to be true was confirmed. "You killed mommy's dragon," she asked, a lot more accusation in that than actual question.

"I'm sorry. We..we didn't know that that would happen," Cecil replied, stepping up to the bed to look upon the woman, so serene in death.

Meanwhile, Kain came to a realization as well. "So that was the Kings wish. For us to get rid of every summoner in the village."

Cecil stepped back, confusion exuding from behind his face mask. "That can't be."

Kain nodded sadly as he stepped forward, readying his lance. "I'm afraid it's true. And if it is, then that means we have to get rid of the girl as well." Upon hearing that, the girl further tried to hide in the corner in fear. Cecil on the other hand, could barely believe that he had heard his friend speak so callously of killing a small child, who had done nothing wrong besides living in the wrong place. She wasn't an enemy that needed to be killed for the protection of the realm. She was a little girl who had just lost her mother and seen her home town destroyed by the very people standing in front of her. And as he beheld Kain ready to strike down the girl, something snapped into place.

"What," he asked incredulously, a dangerous undertone present that hadn't been there before.
"Wee have to obey the King's orders"

"But she's just a child," Cecil objected.

Kain took a step back as Cecil shifted to stand between him and the girl, blade drawn and ready to back up his words with steel. "So, you intend to defy the king," asked Kain.

"I refuse to continue any more slaughter in the King's name. No more. Never again," Cecil replied, taking a matching step forward.

Kain contemplated that for a moment before smirking, lowering his lance. "I knew you'd say that. But don't worry, I'm on your side."

"You are," Cecil asked, taken aback since Kain had been proposing that they kill her merely a few moments ago, and he wanted to know what had prompted this change.

Kain nodded. "I owe the King much, but I can't disgrace the Dragoons. Not by doing something like this."
Beneath the dark armor, Cecil broke into a tiny smile. "So, you'll join me then?"

"Yes. But you know, we're going to need allies if we plan on opposing the mightiest kingdom in the land. And we need some way to get Rosa out of Baron as well, for her sake."

Cecil lowered his sword. "Thank you Kain."

Kain shook his head with a slight smirk. "Save it. This isn't for your sake." Cecil fell silent at the thought that Kain might hold the honor of the dragoons above even their own friendship, but his thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a Bomb exploding nearby.

Kain glanced out the window towards where the blast had come from. "This place is gone, there's no point in sticking around any more. We'd better get going." He looked towards the green haired girl, who was crouched near the bed, as if protecting her mother from the two of them. "What are we going to do about her?"

Cecil turned his gaze to her as well. "We can't leave her here, with the place burning to the ground and Bombs still around. We'll have to take her with us."

Cecil turned and approached her, walking slowly as she shied away, before dropping to a knee. "Hey, it's alright," he said, as comfortingly as he could. "We won't hurt you. You're going to have to come with us, okay?"

"No," she said, shrinking back even more, if that were possible.

There was another explosion, and at that Kain started to get nervous, advancing to stand beside the bed. "Come on, we have to go now," he urged, reaching for the girl with the intent of just grabbing her and carrying her away, kicking and screaming if he had to.

"No! Go away," she shrieked, pushing him back and trying to get around them to escape.

"Wait," Cecil said, blocking her escape as he moved in front of the door.

"No! I hate you! You killed my mommy," the girl yelled as she stopped trying to run.

Something began to change, a mysterious thrumming in the atmosphere where they were. It made both of them nervous, and Cecil felt that it was familiar, a sensation he knew he has felt before. Suddenly, it hit him, his face paling as he recalled having felt this during the assault on Mysidia, though there were significant differences. This felt wilder, more powerful, and untamed. Whatever was about to happen, it wasn't good for them. "Brace yourself," he said to Kain as he took his own advice.

"Go away," she screamed, as a rumbling shook the house, growing in intensity and strength all around them. Kain and Cecil shared panicked looks.

"Get out," they both said at the same time, running out of the house to see a wave of destruction headed towards them, the earth buckling and shaking, adding to the chaos and destruction as the town was ripped apart. Bricks, stone, earth, went flying through the air as the ground buckled, rising and failing, jagged chasms ripping open and closing, houses shaking themselves apart and flames everywhere. It was like the largest battle they had been in, and it was all brought on by that little girl.

Kain and Cecil found they couldn't stay together, debris flying towards them as buildings crumbled. Kain leapt into the air to escape the motion of the ground as Cecil made for the edge of town. Explosions rippled through the shattered town as Bombs were caught up in the conflagration and detonated, making the ground even more treacherous.

He wasn't sure when, but Kain had lost Cecil amidst the chaos, the dark knight's armor unable to be picked out from the air as rocks, dirt, and pieces of house were tossed through the air. He couldn't dwell on that though, as he was having his own problems, cinders and ash filling the air and getting in his eyes, making timing jumps difficult.

Kain's eyes widened as the ground rose towards him, coming much faster than he expected. "Come on," he growled as he shifted in midair, to try and spring off at the last second, but he knew it was no use. It was coming to fast, and the tangle of rubble made it too unstable to launch from. He could only brace for the inevitable as stone came down around him.

Impact. Blackness.

[HR][/HR]
"Ugh," Kain groaned as he woke up. He could feel a pounding headache to complement the pressure on his back from rubble. But on the positive side, he wasn't dead, which was something to be glad for. Slowly, he moved, shifting and pushing, testing the amount of weight on top of him and starting to move it without crushing himself. Fortunately, it seemed to be a small layer, and he was soon able to climb out, blue armor covered in dust and practically brown at this point, with dents and scratches that had not been there before.

He stood up to get a bearing of his surroundings. And as he did, he beheld what was left of Mist, the ground twisted and cracked, fires burning slowly as ash hung in the sky. Any recognizable landmarks had been obliterated, and any signs of human habitation now laid in waste.

The thought that anyone could have survived here was a powerful one for Kain, but he refused to despair. After all, he had survived. Picking up his lance from where it had fallen,. He glanced about and leapt to the highest point he could see, landing a bit harshly on a crumbled rooftop, sharp eyes scanning the land nearby for signs of movement.

"Cecil, are you there? Cecil, answer me! Cecil," he yelled, at the top of his lungs, hoping the call would spur some movement, a reply, anything that would help him locate his friend. But there was nothing, only the clatter of shifting rubble.

But his eyes did pick out something, a bright green, hidden by dust, covered in rock and stone, but there nonetheless. He jumped down and carefully made his way over to where he had seen that flash of color, and that was where he found her. She was half buried beneath a collapsed wall, but he knew it was her. And she was still alive at that, weakly breathing in a manner that was more like a wheeze than anything, but she was alive.

He frowned, standing above her with his lance in his hand. She was defenseless. He could kill her now, and nobody could stop him, no one would know, and if anyone actually cared, they would assume it was the Bombs. All it would take would be a sharp jab, and his trouble would be over. He could go back to Baron and the good graces of the King. No one would ever have to know. If Cecil was still alive somewhere out here, they could triumphantly return to their positions of authority. And if he wasn't, well then, Kain would be there to comfort Rosa.

He hefted the spear for the killing blow. Base of the neck ,severing the spinal cord, she wouldn't feel a thing. It'd be over quick and easy. And Kain could do it. He'd killed hundreds of people who the Kingdom of Baron considered enemies. He'd put down dogs and rabid animals. How would this be any different? One quick strike, and he could return to the right hand of the King, where he belonged.

But still something stayed his hand. This wasn't right, this wasn't just. He'd said that he wouldn't sully the honor of the Dragoons by this senseless killing, and what he said, he meant. She had been condemned to die, simply because of her birthright, not because of what she had done. They had come in, killed her mother, destroyed her town, her home, and now here he was, standing above her battered form with a spear, ready to end her life because she was a summoner. And just before, Cecil had been ready to throw his life away in defiance of Baron for this girl. Should he do this? Could he do this?

With a sigh, he planted his lance on the ground. No, he couldn't. If this was just or right, he wouldn't have a part of it. She could count herself lucky when she woke up. He got to work, shifting cracked fragments of stone and working up a sweat as he removed piece after piece of building that was pinning her to the ground. And as he went, the sun rose into the sky until he was sure enough was clear so that he was able to carefully remove her from where she laid.

He carried her delicate form over to a relatively flat section of ground, gently placing her back down before he began looking her over for wounds. Of the gashes and nicks he found, he cleaned them before bandaging them up with his travel supplies, as well as the medical supplies he had been able to scavenge from nearby. But he knew that for her to escape any serious injury inside a building, that would be miraculous. But there was no real way he could tell if she wasn't awake, since most of his training only precluded battlefield first aid, not the kind of things a trained doctor or white mage knew. If only Rosa were here...

Keeping her where she was in her apparent catatonic state, Kain looked around and picked up some decently undamaged supplies for travel, before returning to where his stuff was gathered. Now to decide where to go and what to do. Keeping the girl alive, as well as how the mountain had collapsed, made going back to Baron a difficult and futile proposition, though the kernel of an idea had formed in his mind and had promptly been dismissed. And that only left one option. He would have to go across the desert to Damcyan. Maybe there he could find some help.

His mind resolved, he slung his pack over his shoulder, picked up the girl to carry her limp form across his other shoulder while his lance was clutched in his opposite hand, and he began the long trek down the mountain, and across the desert to Damcyan, to whatever fate would await.

[HR][/HR]
The whirring of propeller blades filled the air, shadows falling across the ground as mighty airships plowed through the sky, a squadron of them making their way over the mountain to land beyond the destroyed village. As the boarding ramps went down, groups of soldiers tramped out and began heading towards the town, alert and ready as they began to clear away debris and look for survivors under stern direction.

It was the man in dark armor who attracted the most attention as he descended from the ship, walking with an imperious manner as he took heavy strides down the ramp, cape billowing behind him. His visage was hidden by the helmet he wore, the armor making his figure even more imposing as he radiated authority and utter contempt for those around him.

As he reached the bottom of the ramp, he looked around at the activity as someone else descended the ramp behind him. She was extremely out of place here, but had come regardless, even in defiance of the wishes of the dark man, the new commander of the Red Wings, Golbez. She had come out of concern for the one she loved, the one she cared for, and Rosa wouldn't leave until he was found.

"You may stay on the ship Mage," Golbez rumbled without looking at her, his gaze on the destroyed town. "If Cecil is found alive, you will be the first to know."

"After you, you mean," Rosa replied tartly, not liking how firm Golbez had been on her not coming along. "When they find him, I want to be there. Besides, what about the other survivors. What about Kain? If they're in serious condition then we can't waste a second in helping them. Better for me to be there than to need to have someone run back to the ship to get me." She folded his arms and shot him a look that said that she wasn't going anywhere she didn't want to.

"You are stubborn, aren't you," he replied after a short silence. "I don't know what he sees in you." He stepped away before she could have a chance to respond, leaving Rosa to head into Mist and comb the wreckage for Cecil, Kain, and any other survivors.

Time passed, the sun crested and headed towards the horizon. But as a figure in blue trudged towards the desert, a cry came up from a nearby. "Hey, we found a live one here!" It was a cry that brought Rosa running, uncaring of any damaged clothing as she made her way over. She found the team of soldiers carefully shifting sections of collapsed wall, revealing Cecil, battered, bruised, trapped, but alive.

"Move," she said, and the soldiers backed up as she crouched by Cecil, hands flaring white light as she ran them over his unconscious form, occasionally frowning at what she was seeing. "What did you do," she asked rhetorically before returning her outstretched hands to his head, chanting as the white light flared, wounds engulfed in a bright glow as they vanished.

Rosa let out a sigh as the light faded entirely, and she stood back up to let the soldiers finish unburying her beloved. At that point, Golbez had arrived, and the imposing commander stood back watching the work as it happened. Looking over at him, Rosa wondered what thoughts were running inside those black pits that served as eyes.

She stepped over to regard him curiously. "So, have they found Kain yet?"

"No," was the simple response, not a nod, gesture, or acknowledgment of her presence besides that answer.
"Any other survivors?"

"No." Golbez had been quite clear to his men when Rosa was gone that there were to be no survivors. The legacy of Mist would be destroyed, completely and utterly, and their powers removed from this world.

"Oh," Rosa was subdued at the news. The thought that only Cecil had survived, that Kain, the brave Dragoon who touched the sky and had been as near a constant presence as Cecil had when they were younger, was hard to believe. She supposed the full impact hadn't hit her yet, and she wasn't about to break down in front of Golbez. "Do you know what could have caused such devastation? Surely it couldn't have been Cecil and Kain. They may be skilled warriors but even they couldn't have cracked the earth like this."

"I do not know. And at the moment, that is none of mine, or your, concern." That wasn't to say that Golbez couldn't hazard a guess. It looked like a summoner or two had survived the Scouring of the Bombs, and had engaged the two Baronian men, with devastating results. Not much of a loss, but their survival did offer him an opportunity. And he was fairly certain that if Cecil had survived, the gnat of a Dragoon had as well. But where was he?

Rosa huffed, going off to Cecil as they finally removed him from the rubble and began carrying him back to the airship, Rosa following after. She paused on the way though, looking over the destroyed city as she whispered "Kain, where are you?" But Cecil needed her, and she turned to return to the ship.

Golbez glanced over at one of his subordinates. "Organize a squad and send them to Kaipo. If anyone survived they would most likely have made their way across the desert, or we would have seen them. Make sure the survivors are unable to tell anyone what happened. Oh, and make sure the White Mage doesn't know. We wouldn't want to upset her delicate sensibilities."

"Yes sir,' the man replied with a salute before going off to gather the team. Golbez smirked beneath his helmet as he turned from the ruin of Mist, not sparing it a backwards glance, heading back to the airship. Master Zemus would be interested to head about Cecil's survival.

One born of a dragon
Bearing darkness and light,
Shall rise to the heavens
Over the still land.
The moon's light eternal
Brings a promise to Earth
With bounty and grace.
 
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Azecreth

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Chapter 2

The desert was hot, sand as far as the eye could see, blown about on the wind and infiltrating the joints of Kain's armor as he trudged across the wasteland. He panted with each step, the burden on his shoulder becoming almost unbearable as he roasted in his armor. It was like a sauna, sweat covering his body as the sun beat down overhead. Grit rasped across his tongue as he tried to wet his cracked lips. Each step was a struggle against the shifting sand and his own weariness, the scavenged supplies nowhere near adequate for this trek.

As bad as he was though, he couldn't tell how it was for the girl he carried, forced to lay across his metal shoulder, in the direct sunlight and wearing only the tattered clothes that he had found her in. And his armor meant that he couldn't check to see how she was faring, unwilling to stop for fear of not making it to the next town.

Even then, walking across a desert while hoping to stumble across an oasis would have been so much easier if it weren't for the endless monster attacks, desert creatures assaulting him at every turn, forcing him to carefully place the girl out of danger before moving to fight, the sand making his footing treacherous and combat even more difficult as he fought off the various monsters with his lance, every battle draining off more of his stamina, and more of his energy. He wasn't sure how much longer he could keep this up.

Walking, Kain had to keep his mind occupied, focusing on a singular cactus, or a dune, anything to measure his progress by in this desert as he made his way towards Kaipo, a destination he had to reach if they had any chance of crossing this desert. If they didn't, they would run out of water and then they would have no chance.

Cresting another dune, his eyes widened as he saw it, his destination. The city of Kaipo, looking all the more beautiful and fulfilling in person than the description. He could see the water from the oasis running in a canal to collect in an open pool, the water crystal clear. He could see the blurred forms of people moving about, Kain assuming that it was his blurred vision and the distance that kept him from making out anyone clearly. But he knew he was close now, and broke into a loping sprint, sliding down the dune and foot kicking up clouds of sand as he ran, throat on fire as he carried his burden to their salvation.

He ran, and he ran, muscles aching as he shifted through the sand. But for every step, he was no closer, the city seeming to recede in the distance, actively moving away from him all the while as he ran towards it. Finally, something snapped inside of him as he collapsed to his knees, chest heaving as he fell. His lance fell with a puff of sand, and Rydia was dropped as well, unconscious face looking up into the bright blue, cloudless sky. Kain watched the city dematerialize into sand, sand, and more sand,. That revelation, that he had been chasing a mirage, that he had just wasted that exertion and energy for nothing, brought him to tears, if it wasn't so hot that no tears would come. Why the hell was he here? If he'd stayed in Mist, he could be on an airship back to Baron now, not stumbling across a desert in the end of nowhere carrying an unconscious girl whose name he didn't even know and who had tried to kill him earlier. He was a Royal Dragoon! He deserved better than this.

The one consolation he had was that eventually karma would get back to him, but even that seemed unlikely since he was going to die of heat stroke in the desert here. He wondered if Cecil would be waiting for him beyond that final horizon, ready to spend eternity with him, and their grievances settled. It was a nice thought, but Kain knew it was a pipe dream in the end. Mostly because it was highly unlikely they would end up together in the afterlife. He was sure there was some just fate waiting for him.

With a groan he rose back to his feet, picking up the girl and his lance as he stumbled further on, spurred on by the notion that he had come this far, and what would Cecil, or his father think if he gave up now. A dragoon strove to the end to accomplish his mission, and he had given himself a mission, a goal, and he would achieve it. So onward he went, battling the sun, his exhaustion and physical pain. He may fail, but he'd make his father proud.

On and on, as the sun beginning to sink in the sky, casting shadows across the land and bringing merciful relief, though it soon gave way to a chilling cold, the armour providing some relief against that despite his aches and pains. The monsters seemed to dwindle away with the coming night, and the moons rose in the sky.

It was in the dark of night that he finally arrived at Kaipo, stumbling into town and nearly collapsing as he made his way to the inn. He fell more than walked through the door, drawing the attention of the innkeeper, who hurried over to take some of Kain's burden from him.

"Oh dear. Please, take a room for the night, no charge. You look like you've had a difficult journey," the innkeeper said as he handed Kain a room key.

"You have no idea," Kain rasped through dry lips, heaving himself, the girl, and his supplies up the stairs, hands shaking as he worked the key in the lock, finally opening the door and haltingly stepping inside. He dropped his supplies like rocks before laying the girl on the bed and removing his helmet, sucking in air as all the trapped heat was released.

Lance left to lean against the wall, tip digging into the wood, as Kain looked over the girl. He winced in pain at what he saw, and walking over to get some potion's from his bag, leg muscles creaking from how tired he was. Items in hand, he returned to her side, eyes looking over her battered form. The bruises had flared into blackish splotches on her skin, the rest of her exposed skin touched by a fierce red sunburn. There was a nasty welt on her forehead, her skin had flakes of white which appeared to be dried sweat, and he could make out the sound of pained moans. Either she was aware of her state while unconscious, or she was having bad dreams. Of course, he wouldn't know until she woke up.

Dropping to a knee beside her, he carefully titled her head and began to feed her the potion a little bit at a time. As it took effect, he could see the visible colors begin to diminish, and the swelling start to go down. Seeing that she was getting better, Kain left her as he removed one piece of armor at a time, sighing at the liberation he felt. Finally, it was all gone, and he wore a simple tunic and shorts underneath, clothes wet with accumulated sweat and giving any who might have been looking a good shot of his toned chest, arm, and leg muscles. He knew he had the body of a warrior, with all the scars that that meant, such as the broken rib he had gotten during training, when he had messed up a jump and had come crashing down instead of gracefully landing. He could have had any woman in Baron if he wanted, dozens at his whim, and they would be happy to do whatever he wanted. But there was only one who had his heart in a noose, and she saw him as nothing more than a friend. Perhaps once, but that time had long since passed.

Freed from his confinement, Kain did some stretches, working his tired muscles and massaging his feet, working out the tension that had built up form all the fighting and walking. Arms were worked, as well as his shoulder blades. When he was finished, he moved over to the desk and poured himself a glass of water, then sat down to slowly sip form it while watching the sleeping girl, the cool liquid freezing a path down his throat, every little bit like a drop in a burning home. It didn't quench his thirst, but he knew that gulping it down would just result in him throwing up. He did use a potion on himself as well, to heal his battle wounds.

He was pulled out of his reverie as the girl sat up with a strangled gasp, eyes showing pure panic as she looked about, trying to figure out where she was. Kain rose from his seat, stepping over to the bed and laying a hand on her shoulder as she shied away from him.

"Shhhh, it's okay. You're safe here," he said, mustering all the people skills he had to comfort her. "I'm not going to hurt you."

The girl seemed to calm a little, but it was apparent she was still scared, as she curled up, pulling her legs against her chest as she stared at him with wide eyes. "Who are you? Where are we? Why does my head hurt," she asked, reaching to touch the welt on her forehead and flinching away at the slight poke.

Kain frowned at the sequence of questions. Apparently whatever had made that injury had done more than just hurt her. It seemed to have given her some kind of amnesia, which was good for his immediate survival, but it would be bad if he lied to her and then she found out later he was lying.

"My name is Kain Highwind. I'm a member of the Royal Dragoons, from the Kingdom of Baron. We're in the town of Kaipo. Your head hurts because a wall fell on it when you brought down a mountain on me and my friend Cecil," he replied, deliberately trying to give specifics so as to jog her memory. But that seemed to not do anything.

"Why would I bring a mountain down on anyone? And how" she asked again, little beads of water gathering in the corners of her eyes, the girl disturbed by the thought that she would, or could, do that to someone.

"It's because you're a person known as a summoner. You have abilities that no one else has. As for why...That's a long story," he replied, looking over her scrunched up form as he sat down next to her on the bed. "So, what do you remember? Do you remember your name?"

He sat there, watching as she scrunched her face up, obviously pained as she tried to remember. Her eyes sprang open with a gasp as she settled down into a frown, threatening to break into tears. "I'm sorry, it just hurts so much." She paused before asking, still curled up, "Can I have some water please?"

Kain reached to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder, then refrained, casting some confusion to the girl's gaze as he remembered the sunburn that wasn't fully cured, and wouldn't exactly be pleasant of he touched it. She winced as she did what he had worried about doing. "It's alright," he said as he rose. "Just try and remember your name for me, alright?"

She nodded as Kain moved over to the desk to pour another glass of water before returning. He held it out as calmly as he could. "Do you need some help with this?" she shook her head as he handed the glass over. But it quickly became apparent that that was not the case, her immediately spilling some water onto her lap. She fumbled with the glass some more, never really getting any to her lips before she conceded defeat, letting Kain take the glass and carefully help her drink from it, as he had done with the potion earlier.

When the glass was empty, he placed it on the desk with the other one, the girl licking her lips to keep the recently regained moisture there. She gave him a grateful gaze before speaking. "I still can't remember anything...but I think my name is Rydia."

Kain smiled warmly, still sitting beside her. "Rydia. That's a nice name."

Rydia looked down at the blankets, a bit embarrassed by the attention of the strange Dragoon. "So, what are we going to do next? Are you going to take me home?"

Kain held that smile on his face as his mind raced. How was he going to explain this one? Saying that they were going on the run and were preparing to fight the strongest empire on the planet because of her was quite a lot to drop on someone, not to mention it might jog her memory, and then he'd be in trouble. He'd prefer to build up some good will before he brought her back.

"Well, next we're going to go to the Kingdom of Damcya, to meet with the King there. Then we'll..." He fell silent as a realization hit him, that the downstairs which had at least a modicum of emanating from it had fallen silent, and that the hair on the back of his neck was prickling. Something was off, and he'd learned to trust his instincts a while ago.

Leaning over, he placed a hand over her mouth while lifting a finger in a shush sign. He whispered to her as her eyes began to quake from confused fear. "Okay Rydia, I need you to be quite. Whatever happens, I need you to be brave and stay quiet until I tell you. Alright?"

She nodded, and he removed his hand from covering her mouth. "Now Rydia, I will be right back. I promise on my honor as a Dragoon, I will be back for you." He rose as silently as he could from the bed, slipping his boots back on and picking up his lance. He didn't have time for the rest of his armor, so if this came to a fight it would be a bit trickier, but he had fought like this in basic training before, so it wouldn't be too difficult. And it might turn out to be nothing, which would be all the better. Slowly, he opened the door and stepped outside, closing it behind him.

His senses had leapt into hyperawareness, the flow of adrenaline overpowering the exhaustion he felt from his trek through the desert. Something was off, and he knew it. He just didn't know what it was. But he didn't have long to wait to find out as he rounded the corner to see a squad of Baronian Knights at the top landing of the stairs, swords drawn. They leveled their blades at Kain as he shifted his stance to prepare for a fight.
The leader, dressed in the garb of a Captain, shut down his look of surprise as he beheld the dragoon. "Sir Kain, finally, we've found you." He moved to walk pas the Dragoon, who stepped in his way with the succinct phrase. "Wait."

The Captain frowned. "I am here on the King's orders. All summoners from Mist are to be annihilated. We know you arrived with a girl, a survivor from the attack. Hand her over. Now"

"Never," Kain replied, readying his lance, cold steel in his voice. He'd made his choice. He would see it through.

Upon hearing that, the soldiers readied their blades as well. The Captain shook his head, as if sad about what he was going to do. "Then you shall die." The soldiers rushed at him and Kain was forced to think fast as the fight began. He knew he was at an immediate disadvantage, using a lance in indoor combat, not having armor, and outnumbered four to one. But he knew he was better trained, and he was motivated. That had to be worth something.

He moved quick, lashing out with his lance, dodging sword strikes to land a hit on one of the soldiers, sending them stumbling back to be caught by the Captain behind them. But he was pushed back by the blades which deflected his lance, forcing him to cede ground. Darting behind the corner he had so recently emerged from, he was waited as they rounded it as well, flinging a vase with the kind of precision it had taken years to achieve, the ceramic shattering as it impacted with a soldiers head, taking him down for the count.

That small victory only seemed to make the other soldiers angry, and they pushed back harder. Kain was fortunate for his agile footwork as he stayed one step ahead of them. But he was coming up on the room he knew Rydia was in, and he would have to make a stand soon, or else they'd reach her. And he wasn't getting a little girl in this fight, summoner or no.

A particularly sharp strike took down another soldier, a lance puncture through his gut proving a bit distracting from a combat standpoint. That left one more, and the Captain. It turned into a pseudo-martial arts match, Kain using his lance as an impromptu staff while the soldier tried to slice him open with his sword. He hissed from a cut across his forearm that left a track of red. But Kain kept going, gritting his teeth as blood dripped down his arm. He soon got his opening, spearing the last soldier in the side with a quick sweep. He pulled the lance out to let the man drop to the floor dead, as he faced down the Captain.

"You'll pay for this," the Captain roared. "Baron will hunt you down like the dog you are. There will be no safe place for you or for the girl. You will regret the day you chose to betray Baron, you traitor."

Kain took the time to pick up a sword, now dual wielding as he faced the Captain. "They may. But you won't be around to see that day," he replied confidently, and their fight began. Metal clashed against metal, blades weaving a deadly dance, a pirouette of steel as they fought. But Kain prevailed yet again, the borrowed sword sinking into the Captain's chest. Kain removed the sword and tossed it to the side as the Captain collapsed, more than a bit distracted by his arm.

His own attention was drawn by a strangled gasp, turning around to see Rydia peeking out from behind the door to the room. Glancing in a nearby mirror, he realized how he must have looked to her, covered in blood, hair tousled, bodies on the floor before him with his lance sharing some blood.

He headed to a washroom, rubbing off blood with a rag and water, stinging from the contact with injured skin, but he put up with the pain. Returning to the room, he drank a potion as he found Rydia back in bed, apparently seeing him in a new way after that fight.

"You...you killed those men," she said, eyes still wide as saucers.

Kain nodded as he picked up his lance and began sharpening the small nicks out of the blade. When a weapon was your life, you kept it in perfect condition. "Yes," he replied remorselessly. "They were here to kill you, because you're a summoner. I stopped them. So now when those soldiers don't report back in, Baron will know I'm a traitor now too." It was strange saying it, as if telling it to someone else gave it a closure and finality that merely telling himself hadn't. And though he'd be ashamed to admit it, he wasn't as comfortable as he thought he'd be. You could hardly blame him, since treason wasn't something to be taken lightly, but by now he'd saved an enemy of the Crown, and fought the crown's soldiers. There was no going back. But knowing that fact hadn't made him determined, hadn't given him the moral resolve and confidence to carry out the fight to the end, whatever may come. Oh sure, it was easy to see what he was doing was right when he looked at Rydia, when he saw her haunted expression as she tried to remember what had happened to her, but this nagging part of his mind never went away.

The blade sharp now, he put it aside with a sigh, muscles aching once again. "Get some sleep," he said. "It's been a long day. Maybe you'll feel better in the morning. We'll get some supplies, then set on our way."

"Alright." If there was one bright spot, it was that Rydia appeared to trust the dragoon more since she had seen him fighting to protect her. That had to be worth something. He watched as she sank into the bed's mattress, pulling the covers up over herself and falling asleep, as Kain sat in the chair, eventually falling into his silent dreams as the moons turned in the sky.

[HR][/HR]
Cecil's mind floated to awareness upon a tide of warm words, eyes fluttering open with a groan as he beheld a face hovering above him, slowly resolving into the warm, smiling face of Rosa. He slowly grinned as well, attempting to sit up just to be pushed back down by the White Mage. "Take it easy Cecil. You were unconscious for a few days, and you've got a pretty nasty lump on your head," she explained.

Cecil looked around in confusion as his surroundings. "Where...Where am.."

"You're in your room. In Baron. They let me keep you here rather than the infirmary after we found you in the village of Mist." Rosa's face took on a worried expression. "Cecil, do you remember what happened? We found you buried underneath a house, and you were in a bad way. And we still haven't found Kain."

Cecil's brow furrowed in thought. "Mist..." His eyes widened. "I remember. We made it there after defeating the Dragon of Mist...but it all went wrong. The package was a ring made of Bombs. When we entered the town, it activated. It burned the whole place to the ground," he said mournfully. "There was a girl there, green hair. Me and Kain found her crying over her mother. The woman...she died when we killed the dragon. Then the girl brought the mountain down on us." He looked at Rosa sadly. "I think...I think the King sent us there to wipe out the summoners."

Rosa was taken aback, though she did wonder if Cecil was still ill and was speaking through a heat fever. It didn't seem like it though. "But why would the king do such a thing?"

Cecil levered himself up, hand rising to clutch his head as his elbow dug into the pillow beneath. "I don't know. Something strange has been going on with the King, but I don't know what it is." His eyes widened as the other part of what she said registered. 'Wait, you haven't found Kain yet?"

The silence hung heavy as Rosa shook her head sadly, eyes dipping to look at the bed and avoiding his gaze. "They've been looking, but they haven't found him, or a body, yet. There's still a lot of debris to go through. There have been plenty of other bodies though."

"Oh, I'm sure he'll turn up eventually if he managed to survive." The two in the room turned their gaze to the door and the newcomer, beholding a blond haired, blue eyed man in the armor of the Royal Guard, leaning against the door frame with his helmet slung under his arm.

"Sir Baigan. Good to see you again," Cecil said from the bed as the Guard stepped fully into the room.

"You as well Sir Cecil. However, I must cut your rest short. The King wants to see you in the throne room as soon as you feel you are able to come."

Cecil nodded, attempting to rise again but Rosa holding him down in turn. "I don't care what the King wants, you're still weak and shouldn't be moving," she said forcefully.

He fixed her in his gaze, letting her see the resolve there."I have enough strength for this. Besides, Sir Baigan will make sure I don't embarrass myself in front of the King through any involuntary weakness." He could tell that that didn't fully satisfy her, but she relented, and he slowly got to his face, wincing and grabbing for the desk to keep his legs from giving out under him. Rosa leapt to support him, but he waved her off as he gradually straightened his legs and pushed off, keeping on his feet though he did sway a bit, much to Rosa's dismay. He made his way to the door, limp evident in his steps until he stood before Baigan.

"Alright Captain, shall we go?" Baigan nodded and together they made their way to the throne room, Baigan accommodating Cecil by taking the walk at a slower pace than the brisk stride he would have usually. As they made their way as well, Cecil was subjected to a fair barrage of well wishes from people glad to see him up and about, even in his injured state, though they delicately held back from mentioning Kain.

The guards straightened up and saluted as they arrived at the throne room. Cecil and Baigan returned those, and stepped inside. The throne room was sparsely populated, some guards and attendants strategically positioned to counter any threats or respond to the summons of the King if he had need of them. They stood ramrod straight as Cecil and Baigan approached the throne upon which the King sat, his face etched with a tint of a frown, though he appeared to be calmly neutral otherwise.

"Sir Cecil, tell me, what happened in Mist?"

Cecil was taken aback, confused at the lack of any sort of expression of happiness towards his well being, seeing as he was the King's adopted son and all. But he put that to the side to make his report. "Sir Kain and I made our way to Mist, slaying the Dragon that guarded the village. When we arrived though, the Ring morphed into numerous Bomb's, which attacked the village. One of the summoners caused an earthquake, and I was struck by falling debris. I don't know what happened to Sir Kain." He left out mention of the girl, feeling it best to at least hide the fact that he had considered treason form the King.

The King nodded, frown slipping into a smile. "Good. One less thorn in my side. And I'm sure Sir Kain will turn up eventually..."

Cecil felt something nagging at his mind, and he knew he had to say it, despite what had happened the last time he spoke to the King this way. He needed to know, to hear the reasons why he'd had to do what he did at Mist. He'd been on the brink of committing treason, of launching a rebellion against the greatest Empire in the world. Now he was back here, in the heart of the storm, the center, the full might of Baron, and if he was to go on here he needed to know that what he was doing was right and just and for the good of the people. "My liege, if I may be so bold as to ask, why did the town need to be destroyed? They have done nothing to us."

The room, which had been engaged in low chatter, fell silent at that question, the King's frown quickly reappearing, and stronger than before as his grip tightened on the armrests of the throne. "They had not done anything yet." He replied," a cold anger rising in his tone. "The summoners wielded great powers. Had they decided to turn their might against Baron then the Red Wings, the Royal Dragoons, even the walls of this castle could not have stood against the might even a few of them could have brought to bear against us. I acted to remove that threat before it could become one. Is that a problem, Sir Cecil?"

Cecil shook his head, acknowledging that what the King's reasoning made sense, though he wished there had been another way. But it was his job to follow his King's commands, and that he would do, for now at least. "No."

The King leaned back, tension easing a bit. "Good." He seemed to consider something before continuing. "Your commission with the Red Wings is hereby restored. However, you will be in a different capacity." Cecil looked confused as the King went on. "Some worries about your loyalty still linger, and as well, another has presented himself as a capable leader and commander. As such, you will be his second in command until such time as I believe you are worthy to command again."

He gestured off to the side, and Cecil's eyes widened as a man emerged from behind one of the red curtains. He could have sworn the man was a dark knight, but the armor was too different. And there was something familiar about him, as if they'd met before, but he knew that wasn't possible as he would have remembered this sensation he was feeling. It was smooth, caressing, like soft velvet, but at the same time he shuddered from the sheer malevolence of it. He took an immediate disliking to this man in dark.

"Sir Cecil. This is Sir Golbez. You are now his second in command. You will follow his instructions loyally and to the letter, as if they were my own. Am I clear?"

Cecil nodded, as unnerved as he was by the revelation."Yes my King."

"Good. You may go."

Cecil beat a hasty retreat away from his King and Golbez, who were now engaged in a conversation. As fast as his weak legs would take him, he returned to his room, to find Rosa waiting. And she could immediately tell something was wrong from the way his face was flushed, as well as knowing him for long enough to be able to tell that sort of thing.

"What happened," she asked as Cecil sat down on his bed.

"I've been replaced. Made second in command to a man named Golbez," he replied, recounting what had happened in the throne room.

Rosa listened, and he got the sense that she understood what he was talking about when he mentioned how Golbez made him feel. "He arrived soon after you left, almost like he appeared from thin air. And just like that he was in your place as commander of the Red Wings. He led the search in Mist for you and Kain. But there's something off about him, just something that rubs me the wrong way. I'm not sure what it is though."

"Agreed. But what can we do about it though?"

Rosa smiled warmly. "You are going to do nothing for the moment but rest and get better. Then, you'll do your job, but also keep an eye on that Golbez man in case he's up to something. He might be behind the King's changes in attitude in recent years."

Cecil couldn't argue with that as he realized how tired he still was, with the pain from his dwelling wounds making it unpleasant as he was. "As always, I can't argue with your logic," he replied with a grin as he straightened himself out on the bed, Rosa pulling the covers up over him as he began to drift away with slowly closing eyes. "Sleep well, my Prince," she said as they closed and he dozed off into sleep, leaving Rosa to watch over him and await when he would wake again.

[HR][/HR]
"So, Cecil Harvey of Baron...He is a strong one," Golbez mused after the dark knight he and the 'king' were talking about had left the throne room.

"Indeed," the King replied. "But his heart is too pure for my liking. Certainly too much for a dark knight. But if we could bring him to our side, he could be very useful to Master Zemus."

The eyes behind narrow slits in Golbez's helmet narrowed in thought. "It's that White Mage, Rosa. She's the one who keeps him from straying too close to the edge of darkness. She is the one that must be dealt with if Cecil is to embrace serving Master Zemus."

The King leaned back in his throne, joining Golbez as the warrior thought about their problem. "I suppose just killing her isn't an option."

Golbez didn't need to gesture to indicate his displeasure with the idea. "If he learned we were responsible for anything that happened to her, his resistance would only be that much harder, and thus more dangerous. No, murder is no solution here. And it is doubtful the White Mage would voluntarily join Master Zemus as well." He turned from the throne to go back to the room he had been given as a place of meditation and rest. "I shall inform Master Zemus of Cecil Harvey's awakening, as well as our situation. Perhaps he can present a solution we cannot determine."

"Very well," the King replied with a sigh. "I think I can manage here by my own. I have thus far without needing your assistance. Until tomorrow."

"Indeed." Golbez didn't look back as he left the room, to report to his master, and lay the further foundations for his great works.
 
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Azecreth

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Chapter 3

The sun rose over the desert oasis of Kaipo as two figures left the town with little fanfare, having stayed a few days to recover and stock up on supplies before setting out. For the perils of the desert Kain and Rydia were more prepared, and though Rydia still couldn't remember who he was, her memory was coming back. But that proved little comfort, as her rest was filled with tumultuous dreams, of fire, and destruction, and pain. He knew she must be dreaming of the destruction of Mist, but how to tell her that? How could he, the one partially responsible for her dreams, bring her peace? He was a dragoon, not a doctor or a white mage after all. Courteous and honorable he may be, but he wasn't exactly trained to care for someone emotionally.

Kain grinned remorsefully as they walked back into the desert, his mind still on Rydia. Yes, Rosa was always better at that, even Cecil had it to some extent. But him? He usually ended up blowing someone off, or just quietly listening (Or pretending to listen) If it came to actively trying to comfort someone, he was as inept at that as he had been at pursuing the one person he cared for as more than a friend. And he was the unwilling third wheel in that relationship, so that spoke to his skills.

But his dwelling was interrupted as Rydia pulled on his arm, the little girl walking beside him as they headed across the open desert to the mountains. "Sir Kain, do you want me to fight the monsters with you," she asked, as a monster crested the horizon. She'd remembered some of the spells and summons she knew as she recuperated, so she wasn't defenseless. Still, he wasn't sure how comfortable he was with taking a girl of her age into battle, even if she was a summoner with strong magic.

Kain thought for a second before responding. "I suppose you probably should. If we do get in a fight, finishing it quickly will keep us from wasting our energy. And after the walk to Kaipo, I'm not anxious to do that again. Just be careful."

Rydia nodded. "I will Sir Kain." They fell silent as they walked on, her still trying to remember all the things locked away in her mind, while he focused on being alert for anything coming upon them, and not really in the mood to talk either. The sun rose in the sky, beating down upon them as they walked, sand quickly infiltrating their clothes and supplies to leave a gritty taste that was none to enjoyable, much less to walk on. But it wasn't like they had a choice, so they put up with it.

It was the shifting of sand that caught Kain's attention, the desert having grown eerily quiet besides their own movement a few minutes prior, before there was an explosion of sand as something leapt out from the dune they were in the process of climbing at them. Reacting quickly, Kain pushed Rydia to the side before rolling as well, both of them being carried back down to the bottom on a cascade of sand as a chittering mass of plates and legs ran past in it's headlong charge.

Kain got back to his feet, instinctively grabbing his lance as he turned to look at the centipede-esque Hundlegs, which had turned as well and was now looking quite angry, feet stomping and kicking up little tufts of sand around it. His attention was diverted as he looked over to see Rydia picking herself up as well, shaken and bruised but not having any serious injuries from her tumble as sand speckled her green hair.

His face settled into one of determination as he twirled his lance, eyes darting to anticipate where the thing would go next, after him or after Rydia. Either way, he was ready. And he was rewarded as the creature went after him, presumably seeing the armored figure as the bigger threat than the little girl, if it saw her at all. He waited, standing still as it built up speed to charge at him, before dodging at the last second, lance swinging up in mid roll to slice off one of the things legs with considerable precision,. Despite that, the sand had ruined his move, and he grunted as he received a pair of kicks from successive legs, tossing him a bit away and leaving him to get back to his feet again.

Seeing Rydia recovered, he called out from his position, "Use your magic" He could see that green topped head bob before the little girl reached back into her mind, eyes closed as she brought forth her power past the haze of locked memories. With a final definitive word, eyes flared open as spikes of ice erupted, slamming into the Hundlegs, spearing another of it's legs and leaving gashes on it's side from which golden ichor dripped to splatter onto the sand. Kain's eyes widened before he dropped to the ground, another of the ice spikes flying through the air right about where his chest had been, a misdirected bolt that would have speared him had he not been more alert.

"Sorry," she called, obviously embarrassed and dejected after nearly killing him as he rose back to his feet to face the screeching Hundlegs. It was incensed now, rounding on the one who had hurt it so. Rydia screamed as the thing ran at her, running away as fast as she could, but there was no way she could outrun the thing. But Kain wasn't about to let the Hundleg run over his charge without a fight. A step, another, a quick run before he leapt into the air, lance raised overhead as he rode the wind, to plunge down with his weight behind the blade. There was a crunch as it plunged through armored plating, embedding itself in the thing's head while Kain twisted it, digging the tip in further as it collapsed. Legs moved instinctively, randomly, and the Dragoon found himself having to jump off lest he be crushed in the thing's death throes.

He retook his place at Rydia's side, sticking his lance into the sand to clean it of the creatures blood, looking down at her shaken form as he did so. "Not bad, for your first time," he grudgingly admitted. "We'll have to work on your aim next."

"Sorry," she repeated, head fallen as she avoided his gaze. He could tell she was sincere when she said that, and he broke into a small smile, ruffling the top of her head as they began back on their trek, mountains rising in the distance

After what seemed like an eternity of fights, idle chit chat, and walking, they reached the Damcyan Mountains. There wasn't much else to do but follow the well beaten and marked mountain path, though they were harassed by monsters the while, until they found a cave entrance marked by inset torches.

"Well, guess this is the way," Kain remarked a he peered inside the cave mouth, the two of them having stopped for a brief bite to eat before braving whatever dangers were inside the cave. Rydia was munching happily on a chicken sandwich as Kain tended to his lance.

Rydia turned her gaze to him, emerald eyes brimming with well intended curiosity. "Have you ever been her before Sir Kain," she asked, admiring the large mountain range that stretched into the distance, so similar to the mountains of Mist, yet intrinsically different.

Kain looked about to shake his head but stopped, tilting his head in thought as if reconsidering what he had planned to answer. Finally, he completed that shake of his head as he went for his own sandwich, lance sharp once again. "I've flown over it on an airship, but I've never traveled through it on the ground before."

"It's so big," Rydia said, awe filling her voice as her eyes roved from one peak to another, taking large bites from her sandwich, visibly chewing and swallowing each ripped off piece, certainly not lacking for gusto.

Kain ate with more measured, smaller bites, though equally as rapid, a style honed by long years in the dragoons and the necessity of not wasting time to be ready for possible combat. He soon finished, brushing off crumbs with a glove before rising back to his feet. "When you're ready, we should be moving again. We don't know how long it will take to cross through these mountains."

"Alright," she mumbled as she quickly finished up what she had left and helped him break camp. Ready, they set off into the cave entrance. Unsurprisingly it was dark, as they entered a large cavern, a twisting maze of bridges, pools, and tunnels chiseled out by nature as well as the hand of man. Torches lined the path to take, but many had sputtered out for lack of maintenance, and some had been completely ripped from the wall they were embedded in by the monsters that made these caves their home.

Nearing a corner, Kain halted, arm reaching across to stop Rydia as the air reverberated with sound. From what he could tell it was inane mumbling, not likely to be a monster, but not making much sense either. He peered around the corner to see an old man standing on a bridge, mouth running in those mumblings that filled the air as he clutched a wooden staff, billowing robes of eclectic color not exactly complimenting his flaring white hair, which ended up giving him a very mad appearance.

He braced himself for a confrontation before stepping around that corner, followed by Rydia, and making his way along the bridge which could barely fit two people walking abreast down it. Over the side was a pool of water which could cushion a fall by all appearances, but he would prefer not to put that to the test. His lance hung loosely in his hand as he came to a stop several steps away from the middle of the bridge where the man stood waiting for them, staff raised in a guard position.

"You cannot pass," the main said simply, voice filled with the wisdom of old age and the certainty of one stating a simple fact. There was a flare of light from his staff that suggested the power he could wield, yet he did not lash out. Not yet.

Eyes narrowed behind the dark metal of the Dragoon's helmet. "You must be that Sage Tellah they were talking about in Kaipo," he commented, taking on a relaxed demeanor to not give the Sage a reason to be hostile.

Tellah nodded, beard dipping in pace. "Yes, I am he, the wise and powerful Sage Tellah."He looked at them intently, a shiver running down Kain's spine as the old man seemed to peer into his soul, or something like that. It ended with a grunt and Kain released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding in. "Hm...that lance, and armor. Wait, you are a Dragoon of Baron, are you not? You may be able to help me."

Kain blinked in slight surprise, then nodded. "I am."

Tellah looked down at Rydia, who hid herself behind Kain as best he could. "And she is a summoner. I can sense the power within her. She could be useful as well." The two shared a look as the Sage continued, turning about with robes flapping in the air, staff lowering to create a resonating echo against the stone floor. "Come then. My daughter Anna has eloped to Damcya with an evil bard. I fear he bodes her no good."

The new trio went into motion, crossing the far end of the bridge and heading further into the caves, towards their destination. "So, why do you need our help for this," Kain asked respectfully, glad to see that Rydia was slowly warming up to the old man, even if he was cooky, emerging from her impromptu hiding spot to look at him more curiously, something that had begun after he revealed he knew she was a summoner.

"There is a terrible monster up ahead. I have been unable to defeat it on my own, but together, we can vanquish the foul creature and continue our journey," he explained. He looked down, "Now then young one, what is your name?"

A nudge from Kain sent her moving forward, and she looked back with a flustered expression, hands clasped as she stumbled out a response. "R-Rydia, sir."

Tellah scoffed. "Oh come now, don't call me sir. It makes me feel old." That brought an involuntary giggle from the girl, which he responded to with an obviously faked frown. "I don't see what should be so funny about that missy. Didn't anyone teach you to respect your elders?" His frown morphed into a smile in turn as her giggles intensified, the latent tension evaporating as Kain snorted with some amusement at the Sage's efforts to break the ice.

There wasn't much time left to talk as the sounds of moaning and screeching came from up ahead, and a zombie, the smell of putrid flesh filling the air, and several bats moved into view.. With the addition of Tellah, the fight was much easier as the Sage wove complex and powerful magics, striking the various monsters down with bright bolts of lightning while the Dragoon's lance made short work of whatever was left.

"Not bad Sage," Kain admitted, wiping off the blood as they recovered from the fight and looked to see what these monsters might have had that was useful.

"In my younger days I would have been able to wipe out the whole lot in a single spell, and without breaking a sweat to boot. But thank you."The sound of clinking coins could be heard as Tellah recovered some fallen travelers money from the creatures, before rising and brushing off his robes. "If I recall correctly, there is a rest area up ahead. We should stop there and recover before we face the monster."

Kain nodded, and it turned out the old man's memory was right, a rest area with a magical circle waiting, where they could sit in peace from dangerous monsters, though exceptionally strong ones could have shattered the barrier like it was paper. But if one of those had been here, the situation would have been drastically different and they would most likely already be dead. As it was, they sat down to rest weary legs, eating a bit and preparing.

Again, the methodical process of cleaning his lance, an ingrained habit that had been beaten into him over years of training. As he did so, he turned his attention to his two companions. A chuckle escaped as he watched them, Tellah showing off some of his more harmless magical skills, and it looked like the two had fully warmed up to each other. An old man and a little girl. If the other Dragoons could see him, he wasn't sure if he'd be praised for making it this far, or ridiculed for the company he did keep. Well, they were decent fighters at least, so hopefully the Sage was exaggerating how tough this monster was.

Soon enough Rydia fell to sleep, a nap allowed because of her exhaustion, and Tellah made sure she was comfortable before sitting down by Kain. "She has great potential," he commented idly. "With proper training she could master any kind of magic"

Kain nodded. "She's from the Village of Mist," he replied, placing the lance off to the side as he rested his head back. "So, tell me more about this monster we have to face."

"A truly disgusting creature, with eight deadly tentacles, and using the water to it's advantage. By myself I could not overcome it, but together I am sure we can. We must, if we are to reach Damcya in time." The Sage's gaze turned to the fire, looking very disturbed by his thoughts as the reflections of flames licked at his glasses.

Kain glanced into the fire as well, as if trying to see what the old man must have running through his mind. "That's right. You were going after your daughter?"

Tellah nodded. "She ran off with a bard from Damcya after I refused to consent to their union. As well, I feel that something terrible is going to happen. I only hope that I am wrong." He glanced over at Rydia, breaking a smile. "She has a cute face, It reminds me of her." His gaze then returned to the fire though he addressed Kain. "And what of you, Dragoon. It doesn't take magic to know your thoughts are troubles. What brings you on this path?"

It was Kain's turn to get a far off look in his eyes. "We're traveling to Baron. There was a landslide, and I was separated from my friend Cecil. So we have to take the long way around."

He received a quizzical look. "It must have been quite a landslide." That left him to chuckle a bit and let slip a grin. That seemed to settle the conversation as eyes drifted shut, getting what rest they could before they had to face this monster up ahead.

It was early morning when they woke up, as reckoned by his internal clock, rather than the presence of sunlight in some form or other. But this would not be confirmed until some time later, when they emerged from the first cave after a time of fighting and exploring that had left them glad to get out of there, only to be faced with another cave in which waited the creature. Their stockpiles had been increased from recovered loot left lying around in the cave for their benefit, Kain carrying the extra burden in specially enchanted pouches that were designed to be bigger on the inside, and to weigh significantly less as well. Braced, they moved into the next cavern.

The first thing they noticed the was the sound of water. Rather than an annoying drip or the gentle flow of a stream upon rocks, it was a pounding, a roar of sound coming from up ahead and carried by the vibrating stone. The cramped tunnel soon gave way to a wider cavern, the floor gently sloping to meet a large stream that abruptly ended, plunging down to a lower cavern. The three stepped over to look down the drop, the water crashing into rock below.

"The monster is down there," Tellah said to Kain,l who held Rydia up out of the water while bracing against the cold and the current. He glanced to the sides, looking for a path down, but none made itself immediately apparent.

"You have got to be kidding," Kain muttered under his breath. "There's no path. How are we supposed to get down there?"

Tellah grinned, a smile that suggested a long ago youth of recklessness and adventure. He rubbed his hands and shifted his robes as he met Kain's gaze, a twinkle in his eyes. "Jump. Or if you're lucky enough, magic." He muttered a few words and Kain got a strange feeling from his feet. Looking down, he saw that the water had somehow solidified, not ice but it now supported his weight. "A variant of blizzard. Very complicated, and it can only be used by skilled spellcasters," Tellah explained as he walked back over to the waterfall.

Kain joined him as Tellah wove some more magic and they began to slowly descend, getting wet from offshoots of the torrent of water but otherwise fine. "And what if you're traveling towards Kaipo. I doubt you can just go up the waterfall, especially without a mage."

Tellah shrugged. "Most prefer not to cross the desert, or have some sort of flying transportation, so they don't use this route. For those who don't have those available to them, there is a network of caves that ascend the opposite direction running nearby, or they go over the mountain, though that journey takes much longer. And time is a factor for us"

Soon they were at the bottom of the fall, and the three made their way over to dry land, their trek back on as they followed the beaten path through the tunnels, fighting the multitude of creatures that stood in their path. So close, the tension in the air was palpable, and conversation dropped off as they made their way, weapons at the ready.

They were wading through a pool of water, so near to the exit, and Kain was hoping that perhaps the monster was busy, or it had never existed in the first place and they could walk on out to continue their trek. Sadly it seemed not to be as Tellah pointed into the shifting, nearly white water near the bottom of the waterfall. 'There it is. Brace yourself!"

He was surprised by what emerged. It was orange with blue spots, a giant octopus type thing with several tentacles, waving in the air as they led up from the water. This was going to be an interesting fight as it was. He glanced over at the other two. "Tellah, Rydia, hit it with magic. I'll distract it."

The battle began in earnest as Tellah flung bolts of lightning at the monster, Rydia shot ice shards, and Kain leapt into the air with lance spinning. That was quickly shown as a not viable tactic as a tentacle whipped in from the side, tossing him from the impact to land in the water. He shook his head as he rose back to his feet, gaze fully on the creature. "Get rid of the tentacles first. Then we can finish the thing," he called, already planning.

It seemed Tellah was doing the same thing as he ceased with his Thunder spell, instead leaning down and dipping his hand into the water. This exposed him though, a flailing limb whipping down towards his back, and it took quick reflexes for the Dragoon to interpose his lance between it and the Sage, deflecting it to slap into the water beside him. That was just enough time is seemed, as a crackling sound issued from the water, spindly veins forming before the surface in front of Tellah solidified, frozen into a thick shell by the Blizzara spell, trapping the base of the limb that had just swung at him. "Do it," he said as he rose back to his feet. Kain grinned beneath his helmet and ran forward, skewering the limb as it struggled to break free, falling still as the lance went clear through it.

That had distracted them form their third party member, and their attention was rapidly drawn back by a cry. Rydia was dangling in the air, leg seized by one of the seven remaining tentacles which she flailed about in an attempt to break free. And they didn't have much time either, as the strange mouth on the octopus snapped eagerly. It didn't take a scholar to tell that it wanted to eat her for dinner.

"I've got her." Kain knew that they couldn't use magic on it while she was in its grasp, so he took the initiative, jumping into the air and testing his acrobatic skills to the limit as he moved closer, though she was moving away at the same time. But he wasn't one to try the same trick twice, and in mid flight he hurled the lance, aim dead on as it speared into the tentacle and embedded itself in a wall. The limb, useless now, uncurled and dropped Rydia, who fell to land in the water with a splash. She recovered with a series of coughs, clearing out the water from her lungs while Kain retrieved his lance. Her gaze radiated her thanks as he looked down, and he nodded quietly before returning to the fight.

With two limbs down and their magic able to be used to full effect, the Octopus didn't last very long at all. The air, when not cleaned by the spray from the waterfall, smelled like burned fish and the water held wisps of red blood, though those were quickly swept away. With a roar, the creature collapsed into the water, body and limbs motionless as it was pulled downstream by the water, to be eaten by carrion and dropped in an underground pool somewhere. The three relaxed from their ordeal, potions and healing magic fixing whatever wounds there were, and they didn't waste much time in heading outside.

"...Thank you for saving me Sir Kain," came the quiet voice as they walked, and Kain looked down at the wet, shaken, but strong girl.

"It was nothing," he replied, letting a grin come to him. "And you can lay off the Sir. It's not that important anyway."

They emerged into the bright light of day as she contemplated that before smiling. "Alright." Their celebration was interrupted at the sound of propeller blades headed towards them. Lots of them. High in the sky though they were, Kain's vision was good enough to pick out the design of the Red Wings. And that wasn't just one ship, that was a fleet. They seemed to be paying them no mind though as they flew towards the mountains.

"Look," cried Tellah, anguished voice nearly cracking as he pointed off in the distance. The sight that greeted them chilled bones. There was Castle Damcyan, smoke rising into the sky as it burned, damage visible even from this distance.

"We're too late."
 

Azecreth

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Chapter 4

The air was silent, an atmosphere of anticipation and fervor, the busy activity of Castle Baron subdued in preparation for what was to come. Even the halls seemed more empty, the servants scarce, and those who were there moved quieter, less hasty, as if trying to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

The reason why was plain when it came arrived, the sound of cold steel ringing in echoing step Two tall spectres, wrapped in dark armor, proceeded down the halls of the castle, black flanking dark blue as they proceeded in silence. The tension between the two was palpable and any who came across them quickly scrambled out of the way. The enmity between the two was there for all to see, despite Cecil's efforts to get along with Golbez at the behest of the king.

He'd tried, he really had, for the sake of his duty. But something about the man just rubbed him the wrong way, his brusque yet arrogant manner, his casual callousness. Was this the man he could expect to become if he carried on as a Dark Knight?

The rising sound reached his ears, a babble of humanity as they moved on, growing in strength and volume though not resolving into any one particular conversation. The reason for this became clear as he stepped out into one of the courtyards that dotted the inner grounds, wincing as his eyes adjusted to the sunny day. In that process the contents of the courtyard resolved into vision, revealing the area to be full of armored soldiers, banners waving in the wind as they waited. The arrival of the commanders brought them to a snap attention, falling silent so the only sounds from them were breathing and the slight clinking of armor.

Golbez stepped forward, his black armor seeming to absorb all the sunlight that fell upon it, his eyes gliding over the assembled ranks of soldiers. "Brave soldiers of Baron, I carry orders from our King. Too long have we tolerated the perfidious Kingdom of Damcya and their ways. Every day they further insult us by their words and their actions, by their very presence which is a slight to the power of Baron. Well no longer. I have received instructions from our King, and we shall ride out to crush the Kingdom of Damcya, take their crystal to add to the power of our nation, and remove the disgrace they have placed upon us." His fist curled angrily, armor clinking as it shook with the apparent force of his rage, the emotion spreading to the troops nearby like a virus.

From the front of the ranks, Cecil looked on with disapproving eyes. He had thought this action was unwise, and knew what Golbez claimed was false, but his objections had been silenced, and there was still some part of him that was loyal to his liege and wanted to believe that this action was justified, though it seemed that that part of him kept shrinking as time passed while the darkness weighing on his heart grew.

"Our weapons are sharp, our will is strong. The Red Wings shall fly to Damcya, and we shall prevail." Golbez returned to the front of the soldiers, eyes sweeping over their stiff forms. "Your squad leaders have their orders. We depart in a half hour. Be ready." He turned, cape sweeping around as he stepped back inside. The congregation of soldiers dissipated, individual units moving to gather their equipment and prepare to deploy out.

Cecil turned to follow Golbez, as emotionless as when he had followed the man here, but something caught his eye and he stopped, a bit of a grin gracing the corners of his mouth as he walked over to Cid, the familiar brown bear and blue uniform sticking out through even the sea of taller soldiers that surrounded him.

"Leaving so soon Cecil? And without saying goodbye no less? I'm disappointed" The engineer was properly indignant, voice gruff with mock anger and face frowning to display that, arms folded as his foot tapped on the cobblestone paving.

Cecil nodded. "It's not what I'd desire, but I must. I'll be back before you know it."

Cid harrumphed. "You had better. I don't want to have to go and dig you out of a mountain again. Lysa would never let me hear the end of it." A gruff chuckle died away and his smile fell as a memory pushed itself to the foreground of his mind. He took a step closer, reaching out and seizing Cecil's metal covered arm in his calloused hand. "Right, eh, I'm...sorry about what happened to Kain. I know he was a close friend, and to lose him so suddenly... I hear they haven't even found his body yet."

Inside, Cid grimaced to himself. Geez, this was unlike him, but then again he'd never been good at the comforting emotions, despite having a daughter. He was more geared towards tough love, the rough and tumble of construction and engineering. The most consolation anyone got there was a trip to the pub and free drinks, while everyone told stories. He wasn't equipped to handle helping someone with this kind of loss.

Cecil cast his gaze upwards, the raw wound disturbed and not so much assuaged, as if he would see the blue armor of the dragoon suddenly drop down like he had never been gone. He shook his head. "Kain isn't dead. With how much time he spends in the sky, I refuse to believe that his fate is to be killed in an earthquake. It would be too ironic for him." He didn't have any reason to believe as he did, he could just feel it in his bones that the Dragoon was alive, though the men who had been out looking for him said his body must be lost beneath thousands of tons of rock and dirt.

Cid broke back into that grin again, stepping yet closer and clapping Cecil on the back. "That's the spirit. Those morons couldn't tell a drill from a spoon, so until they bring you some proof, don't listen to them."

Cecil nodded, helmet dipping while glad that it hid the slight wince from the impact atop his armor. Cid wasn't the type of person to hold back, something Cecil should really be used to by now, but he didn't hold it against the old man. As if he could. Cid might be a grumpy workaholic, but he showed that he cared in his own way. And if that meant getting the wind knocked out of him, Cecil would accept that.

He did, however, move to break out of the near ironclad grip he was held in, but Cid moved to stop him. "What, gonna leave without saying goodbye to her either," Cid asked, gesturing behind Cecil to where Rosa waited in bright White Mages robes, face tinted by concern.

Cecil wordlessly broke from Cid's grasp and walked over to Rosa, face stern though that would not last very long if she was involved.

Rosa reached forward and took his gauntlet covered hands in hers. "They shouldn't be sending you back out to fight. It's too soon," she stated, as if the verdict had been set and the decision could not be changed. Her continued concern brought on a smile even though he disagreed.

"I must go where my King commands," Cecil replied solemnly, before cracking a smile. "Besides, there is only so much bed rest a man can take before he starts to get stir crazy." He took a step closer. "Look, I feel fine. And if something happens I will have the entirety of the Red Wings with me. You don't need to worry."

He could see Rosa struggling for a counter argument, her reticence to see him go off to these conflicts at war with her more rational self, until at last she caved. "Fine. But you had better come back in one piece. I'd worry myself sick if I had to go looking for you again."

Cecil nodded. "I'll come back, I promise."

"I know," Rosa agreed, previous worry assuaged. "But that's not what's troubling you is it?"

Cecil glanced about, to make sure none of the men coming with were in earshot, so they couldn't hear what he might say. Going into an operation like this, the last thing he needed to do was sow dissension in the ranks. 'I...don't approve of this. What Golbez spoke of, it hasn't reached nearly the level he implies. It seems to be more of the crystals than anything. Baron and the king have no need of these aggressive wars against the neighboring kingdoms when we are the worlds foremost military power. It doesn't sit right."

He sighed aloud, voice dropped to a near whisper as he averted his gaze. "I wish I had a choice."

Rosa frowned, overhearing his muttered statement and holding back the desire to slap him. Sometimes that depressive streak of his got to a place where he needed someone to knock some sense into him. "We all do," she replied firmly. "And when the time comes, I'm sure you'll make the right one." She could see the way his own doubt was tearing at him, but could only provide encouragement.

"Thank you." Cecil stepped closer, helmet touching her forehead as they stood close, the one concession by them both to their impossible relationship. And it was one he didn't want to end.

But end it had to, and he was the one to pull back, returning to some semblance of the posture he had had before. He glanced over his shoulder at the onlooking engineer. "Cid, take care of her for me," he called back, to receive a gruff laugh for a response.

"Of course I will! Just leave it up to me." Cid pounded his own chest this time, beaming through his grimy goggles.

Confident in the engineers ability, Cecil moved away, resisting all temptation to look back as he went to join his men on the airships. Rosa understood, he was sure she did.

From then on it was the organized chaos of a military unit preparing to move out. Supplies were loaded up onto the airships, with much haranguing from NCO's, as well as men. The holds soon became crowded while sentries walked the deck, intervening to stop scuffles and preparing for monster attack when they were airborne. That had been occurring more often lately, and after they had been attacked on the way back from Mysidia, nobody was taking any chances.

The airship. A marvel of technology and one of the main reasons for Baron's position of power. A relatively new development in technology, the large flying craft allowed Baron to deploy troops across the globe in a matter of days, compared to the weeks or months that overland travel would require. Airships had originally been developed for commercial purposes, to allow for the expansion of business and the transportation of goods, but once the military applications had been discovered the government they were quick to appropriate it for their use only.

Invented by one Albrecht von Zeppelin (though Cid had done most of the work in creating the military versions that went into the Red Wings), the airships themselves made extensive use of technological and magical developments. Rather than making a fully metal body, ocean going ships were adapted to serve as airships, with reinforced hulls and an easier production method since shipbuilding was an established industry. From there, the construction process was streamlined, though it still took months to build a new airship. Large propellers were installed to elevate the craft, while wings and rear turbines gave it forward propulsion and the ability to maneuver, if somewhat haphazardly. It was not perfect, but as the only nation with an air force, it suited Baron's needs just fine.

For armaments, only cannons suited, lining the sides of the craft while swivel guns covered the front and rear. Grapeshot, explosive rounds, solid shot, whatever the situation called for. Nestled safely in the center of the ship is the main cargo hold for whatever the vessel would be transporting, whether that be men or material. And off to the sides of that were the engines that kept the propellers moving and the ship flying. Thunder, Float, various spells woven into the machinery and the very timber of the vessel that kept it in the air, failure of which would send it plummeting to the ground. But they did not break. When in port engineers and mages took meticulous care of the machines, to remove the wear and tear, and ensure the smooth running. There were accidents to be sure, but they had been limited for the most part.

Cecil stood on the deck of the lead ship, the Venator, eyes scanning the men as they went about their duties, preparing the cannons, bringing on the last of supplies, and manning the other functions important to the operation of the ship. It was the same for the other airships. And still it was all too soon that they were ready to depart, Golbez joining Cecil on the main deck. Capes were blown by the wind as propellers started up, whirring to incredible speeds as the hull of the airship left the ground, casting a shadow across the courtyard and castle below. From his vantage point, Cecil could see the king emerge onto a balcony and salute the Red Wings in their departure, the soldiers aboard facing the castle and doing the same in return before the ponderous machines turning towards their destination and moving ahead. They were underway.

The trip was remarkably uneventful, the slipstream they rode to Damcya an easy, if not smooth, ride. And for the first time in recent memory they were untroubled by flying monsters of any kind. Had Cecil been more the joking type, he might have considered the reason to be the presence of Sir Golbez aboard their vessel, who's dark aura was certainly in tune to intimidate.

Cecil preferred to stay on the main deck, to watch over the men, and to remember. This high up and surrounded by only sky, it was hard for his thoughts to not turn to the lost Dragoon that should have been standing next to him. He kept expecting to turn around and see him, or hear his voice, and though he rebuked himself for the doubt he held that maybe everyone else was right, it was hard to stop himself from doing it.

As the castle crested the horizon, he was joined on deck by Golbez, who stared intently at their target, arms folded and cape billowing behind him. "Cecil, how would you go about obtaining the crystal from Damcya," he asked, without turning his gaze to the dark knight beside him.

Cecil frowned in thought. "A show of force with the airships, and if that does not suffice, a surgical strike to claim the crystal with minimal effort and causalities. We do not need to give our enemies further incentive to hate us."

"Interesting," Golbez replied. "But wrong. We must crush them with the power we have in the course of gaining their crystal, to set an example for Fabul and Troia about what happens to those who resist us. We shall strike hard, we shall strike fast, and we shall take what should be ours."

"I don't think that that is wise," Cecil objected. "Without giving them the chance to surrender it could cause them to fight that much harder, if they see that they have no other choice."

Now Golbez did look at the dark knight beside him, eyes burning from the darkness they were wreathed in, his displeasure most evident. "This decision has been agreed to by the King. I will not tolerate any dissent. Am I clear?"

That earned a frown from Cecil as well, though for a different reason. "Very." He lapsed into discontent silence, watching on as Golbez issued orders to the crewmen.

Signal flags rose into the air for the rest of the airships to see, and the deck was filled with movement as the men prepared for combat. The covers were removed from cannons, which were levered up or down to prepare them for angle firing onto a ground target. The process was repeated on the other airships as well. Soon they were ready for combat, battle flags waving in the breeze as they fell into a line formation, and approaching Damcyan Castle.

Down below, it was as if the people were ants, scrambling about at the sight of the approaching airships, preparing defenses while raising flags to question the force about their intentions. It was a fine effort, but wasted in the end.

The airships turned, bringing broadsides to bear, and in one coordinated moment they fired. The air was filled with explosions, the smell of smoke and gunpowder assaulting everyone before being blown away on the wind. Projectiles flew in downward arcs towards the castle below, slamming into stone, wood, shattering what they hit and sending the people running to dodge. Another volley came whistling in and then another, flinging dirt, shattering windows, and bringing down masonry as rounds impacted or exploded.

Arrows flew up to greet them, attempted volleys falling somewhat short and only a few able to bounce off or hit the hulls of the airships as they moved. Cannons fired as well, aim all that difficult with the elevation involved and surprise on the side of the Red Wings.

The ships then proceeded in a leisurely circle around the castle, cannon fire silencing any areas of real opposition and bombarding the walls themselves. Flames began licking at the outsides of buildings, sowing additional chaos and making a coordinated response to the attack all the more difficult.

Resistance for the most part subdued except for a few holdouts, the airships moved in, lowering to near the ground and ropes dropping out to disgorge the soldiers on board, who set to work finishing off any pockets that still held up and securing the castle. As sporadic fights broke out in the surrounding courtyard and the castle itself, coordinated with the airships above, it wasn't much longer until Cecil and Golbez came down as well, the black armored commander not trusting any of his subordinates to secure Damcya's crystal.

Cecil's gaze traversed the courtyard, air filled with the sound of crackling fires, clashing blades, and screams. He had to drop his eyes, lest the memories of Mysidia and what he had done there return. Fortunately even their foes knew what their black armor meant, and only the most foolish or suicidal attacked them, and were as quickly dispatched. All the more he couldn't deny that this was wrong and that their attack had been unfounded, but now that they were going he couldn't stop it, not without inciting greater conflict as the Red Wings divided their loyalty. For now he had to go with Golbez. But the seeds that had been planted and briefly nourished in Mist were starting to bloom once again.

They stepped past the splinters of the thick wooden door and into the blood and soot stained passages of the castle, past slumped bodies and hallways filled with rubble, ascended stairways and past the throne room, until at last they were at the entrance to the Crystal Room. Guards waited there, where it seemed the last holdout of resistance was.

Golbez gestured with a simple command. "Go." At his word, the door shattered inward in a hail of splintered wood, the items that had been used to reinforce it sent scattering. Blades clashed once again as the soldiers inside fought, and fell, leaving only the royal family standing there, some servant girl with them.

The king had his sword drawn, standing protectively in front of his wife and the Prince, face strangely calm for the situation he was in. "Golbez, what is the meaning of this," he said to the black figure before him, maintaining his composure in the face of totally defeat.

Golbez stepped forward, arm sweeping the cape to the side to reveal his sheathed sword. "It is about the Crystals. With their power we can ensure the next century is dominated by Baron. And since Baron had none, we must take them. First Mysidias, now yours."

The king glanced back at his family, gears turning in his head. "If it is only the Crystal you want, then take it and leave us in peace. There is no more need for pointless bloodshed."

Golbez didn't move, but the sudden drop in rooms temperature heralded what was to come as he responded. "You attempted to resist, now you will be made an example of for the rest of the world. So is the decree of the King."

The three behind the Damcyan King shied away and closer to the crystal, as he in turn coped with the received information. His face twisted into a growl as his blade resumed pointing at Golbez, shining with the orangish-red light given off by the Crystal of Flame. "In that case I have no choice but to challenge you to a trial by combat. If I win, you and your men shall leave Damcya without your crystal, and the military of Baron will never set foot on our lands again."

Golbez smirked, drawing forth his sword, blade black with pale runes etched into it and a solid hilt. "And if I win then the Crystal shall be mine and the lives of everyone here forfeit. After all, I am sure we could find some use for even your family as slaves."

That struck a nerve, and the fight began as the King moved in to attack, dark steel meeting with bright iron in a clash of metal. And as their blades wove and sent sparks to the ground in their duel, it became quickly apparent how this would go. Golbez was strong, inexorable, blows falling with a force that was hard to stop and pushed at the King's guard.

The king, on the other hand, was a licking fire, striking fast at the heavily armored man and trying to slip past his guard to lay hit after hit, hoping to wear him down. He had his own armor as well, but it seemed more flimsy than what Golbez was using. Still, the King did have determination and anger going for him, the will to save his family and his people from the Baronian yoke, while Golbez was merely driven by a desire to claim the Crystal that stood in the center of the room.

But even as they fought the tide began to turn. It wasn't just the difference of styles, but also the fact that Golbez seemed to have some otherworldly strength, allowing him to land hit after hit, to push the King back and step ahead despite whatever his opponent threw at him. And though he took hits as well, it didn't seem to phase him in the slightest.

And then in a moment, it was over. Blades thrummed, clashed, and a look of surprise graced the King's face as a reddened black blade sprouted from his back.

"No!" The Queen cried out, running over to her husband, who dropped to his knees, clutching at the blade in his chest which was removed with a swift jerk and a kick, sending him to land on his back. There the Queen went, cradling his head in her lap as his eyes fluttered, a trail of blood coming from the corner of his mouth. All his attention was on his wife, and hers on him, and he muttered something unintelligible, at least from the place where Cecil was standing, but that also broke the floodgates and drew forth long, racking sobs. The prince and servant moved over as well, tears staining the boys cheeks and the girl holding his hand in the while.

Golbez radiated a strange air, as if amused with the emotional sight being played out before him. His sword rose to hover in the air as he spoke. "As the winner of this trial by combat your lives are now forfeit to me. I now execute my sentence."

The blade flashed before anyone could react, including Cecil who continued to watch on with a deliberately induced coldness in his gaze. Expensive fabric tore, and the Queen slumped down, joining her husband in death's embrace. That left the Prince and the servant, both backing away as best they could. Golbez motioned, and guards took hold of them in spite of their struggling, fear emanating from them both.

"Your deaths will show the rest of the world what resistance buys them," Golbez said as he moved before them, droplets of red falling from his sword to impact on the marble floor. Now he stood before the prince, blade ready to strike once again. It rose and fell...

At that very moment the girl cried out "Edward!" Summoning some inner strength, she wrenched free of the grip of the soldiers who held her and ran forward, interposing herself between the blade and the Prince. There was a scream as her body was consumed by pain of the cold steel sinking into flesh, and an adjoining cry of 'Anna" from Prince Edward, and he broke free as well to catch her, the circumstances resulting in the blade strike being serious but not immediately lethal. Still, Cecil knew enough to tell it would kill her if it wasn't treated immediately.

Golbez stood over them, sword relaxedin his grip, and Cecil got the impression he was sneering at Edward and Anna. "Very well," he said after a few seconds had passed. "You shall live Bard, live and tell the tales of the fall of your Kingdom, and how it took the sacrifice of a woman to save your life." He turned away from the sight of the couple, instead looking to his primary goal, the reason for this violence, the Fire Crystal that stood indifferent to the bloodshed about it in the center of the room.

Though it stood large, Golbez ascended confidently the stairs that led to where it hovered in the air. He reached out to touch it, keeping his arm from jerking back at the power that he could feel in the entity. Palm planted flat against it, he spoke to it, recited ancient words, and with a flare of pulsing light the crystal shrunk, still shining as it had, but now all the better to be transported in it's reduced size. Now it was as large as a dagger, and he carried it confidently away, paying no attention to the two lovers whos sole focus was each other.

"Come Cecil. We have what we came for. Time to leave." Golbez passed by Cecil, who cast a last, long glance at Edward and Anna, it impossible to not think of himself and Rosa. They had something more between them than servant and master, that he could tell, and he knew now more than ever that what they were doing, what they had done, was wrong. But still he could not turn against Golbez and the King, not when they had Rosa. He would not put her in harms way.

Still, there was something he could do here. He didn't turn away, instead walking up to Edward and Anna, going for his pack and handing the Prince what medical supplies he had. "Apply these to her wounds. She'll bleed out otherwise" he said, voice tinted with regret, before he turned and hurried to rejoin Golbez before the commander came back to finish the job.

And so they departed, soldiers in tow, a ruined castle in their wake. The Crystal had been taken, their job done, but their Commander was not content and would only settle for a complete job, and when the airships had been loaded up again they undertook one final mission, dropped bombs shattering yet more stone into rubble and fanning the flames that engulfed the castle.

As they flew away, Cecil thought he saw a sparkle of blue from the mountain, reminiscent of the lost Kain. But he turned away, wondering what the Dragoon would think of this.

[HR][/HR]From seeing the sight of the airships flying away from the burning remains of Damcyan Castle, it had been a practical mad dash across the foothills to the structure, led by the energetic yet fearful Tellah, which was the first time Kain had seen the old mage actually afraid in the short time they had known each other. And who could blame him, when his grand daughter had run off to the castle there with a bard. He was rightfully concerned.

This was contrasted by Rydia. Originally as enthusiastic as Tellah had been to get to Damcya and find Anna, her energy had visibly diminished and she had fallen further and further behind the closer they got, to the point where Kain was carrying her along as they moved.

They set up a fearsome pace, and woe to any monster that got in their way, either ignored or slapped aside by Kain's spear and Tellah's high powered magic. With how urgent this was they weren't wasting any time. And soon enough they were at the entrance to the castle, and able to see the full extent of the damage.

Kain was taken aback by the sight. "I knew the Red Wings were powerful, but I never expected this," he said somewhat appreciatively, somewhat in awe. A terrible thing it was, but the destructive force needed to do what they were looking at was powerful indeed. The walls were crumbling, gaping holes present that gave a view of the shattered buildings inside. The moat was brown was dirt, rock, and refuse. The drawbridge had gotten stuck as it was being lowered in some desperate attempt to escape, flames licking at blackening wood.

Tellah's hand rose and bolts of lightning flew out, slamming into the chains that held up the drawbridge and shattering them, sending the wooden structure crashing down into place, wood straining and visibly cracking under the stress of the impact and what else it had suffered. "Anna," he called, beard blown by the wind and robes flapping wildly as he pounded across and into the courtyard. Kain put down Rydia and crossed as well, holding her hand.

The courtyard wasn't much of a better sight, dust in the air, craters pockmarking the ground where there weren't piles of rubble from collapsed structures. Things burned in wanton abandon as the carnage laid itself out before them. The worst was the bodies though. Tossed everywhere, soldiers and civilians cut down in combat or trying to flee, some unrecognizable, burned, with only a general shape to identify them as human, and others more obvious, clusters and piles of bodies, stripped of valuables and left to rot in the sun, pools of iron red surrounding them. And the smell was terrible, gunpowder and ash, death and decay, on the wind.

And yet sadly it was an experience Kain was used to, though not on this scale. He was taken aback by the size of the slaughter here, and he would only walk through the courtyard towards the entrance to the main castle while keeping himself from showing how stunned he was. "God, why would they do something like this," he asked out loud, not expecting an answer.

He arrived at the main doors, which swung brokenly on their hinges, realizing something was off. Looking around, he saw that Rydia had somehow left his side and was now standing near one of the larger piles of bodies, and he nearly bashed his helmet against the wall at what a fool he had been. Despite what she had been through, a sight like this was something no child should have to see, and even what happened to Mist hadn't been this bad in terms of sheer horror. And he had just walked her right in, assuming she could handle it. This was why he shouldn't have kids.

But he went to correct his error, walking over to Rydia and placing a hand on her shoulder, though she jumped at the contact. Looking down, he could see her eyes watery and cheeks stained with tears. "Why, why did they have to die Sir Kain," she asked, voice trembling.

Kain frowned. "I don't know. But, if this was Baron..." A reason presented itself in a plash and he glanced towards the main castle. "The Fire Crystal of Damcya."

"They did all this...for a rock," Rydia asked, the lack of comprehension apparent in her voice, and Kain wasn't sure how to explain the motivation that led people to go to war to a child. "But that's wrong! That's-"

"Everything alright," Kain asked, noticing how she had flinched as her sentence cut off, shaking her head as if to clear something away.

"I'm fine," she replied, looking back up at him and smiling, though it seemed a bit strained. But he dismissed it, patting her on the shoulder.

"Good. Come on, we had better catch up with Tellah before he finds Anna." Rydia by his side he moved on into the castle, hoping to locate the old mage before he found his grand daughter, however she may be.

The inside wasn't much better, though it wasn't on quite the visual scale the courtyard had been in. Here now, tapestries had been ripped from walls, columns hacked at and chipped, doors shattered, pottery and stone smashed. And yet again more bodies. Slumped down against walls and furniture, slashed, stabbed, even a few decapitated. At natural points of resistance there were again piles of bodies strewn across the floor, though not to the scale the courtyard had been in. And here the scale of death and destruction wasn't as readily apparent, and they were able to avoid most of it as they followed the path Tellah had left.

Still, he wasn't the one primarily suffering in this. He was used to what the aftermath of combat was like; Rydia was not. Though he wasn't looking all the time, when he did he could see how she flinched at what she saw, how something seemed to be troubling her thoughts and weighing her down, always shaking her head and giving him a smile when she saw him looking at her. But he had the feeling something was up and she wasn't telling him, though he had thought she trusted him enough to do that.

His attention was drawn away from that soon enough, moving through the hallways and corridors, past the ruined throne room, and into the Crystal room, no longer as light as it had been. "The Crystal is gone. Baron must have taken it," he commented before he saw Tellah, standing in front of an injured girl and a boy at her side, the mage's face half saddened, half filled with rage. And it was a scary sight.

"You...you...you...YOU SPOONY BARD," Tellah roared angrily, though not without audible sadness. Staff raised high, he leapt at the boy in question, who tried to move back, explanations stumbling out and ignored by his attacker.

"THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT! IF YOU HADN'T BROUGHT ANNA HERE, SHE WOULD STILL BE ALIVE!" Tellah wasn't even bothering with magic, swinging wildly with his staff and landing blow after blow on the boy, who wasn't doing a very good job at dodging if he was even trying. And even that was hard to tell, with how his hands were clenched and tears fell, so distraught by what had happened. Kain and Rydia could only watch the one sided beating, aware how unable they were to comprehend the depth of what Tellah was feeling, though Rydia seemed on the verge of tears as well and even Kain wasn't unaffected.

At some point Tellah had started crying, glasses wet and angered shouts falling inarticulate as he slowed down, eventually ceasing. The Prince probably appreciated this, though he didn't show that. And before someone could move again another voice joined the conversation, weak, yet clear as well. "Grandfather."

"Anna!" Tellah moved from where he was, crouching at his grand daughters side, holding her hand in both of his. "I'm sorry. If only I had consented, if only I had tried harder to stop you, then you wouldn't be here." He didn't look like he would stop crying soon as the Prince joined them both, on the opposite side.

Anna smiled weakly. "It's alright Grandpa. You were only looking out for me. But me and Edward were in love. Surely you can understand that."

Tellah nodded wordlessly as Edward took Anna's other hand. "She took the blade meant for me. I didn't want her to, but I couldn't stop her. Golbez did it," he muttered, as if trying to explain to himself why she was the one down there and not him.

"It's alright. Just knowing you'll survive, that's all I need," Anna replied, her gaze shifting from Edward to Tellah, shining with surprising clarity despite how she was. "Please forgive him Grandpa. Edward's the Prince of Damcya. It wasn't his fault."

Tellah nodded, tears still falling like an unending stream. "Of course, of course." In some part of him Kain guessed that Anna could have asked for the world and Tellah would have agreed, but that just showed how much Tellah really cared, though he didn't always show it.

"Thank you Grandpa. I love you." Anna fell silent, and it was as if some threshold had been crossed, her grip falling limp and her eyes closed, head tilting to the side as her chest stopped moving.

"I love you too. I never stopped," Tellah replied, in the same mess he had been. As her grip slipped he clung all the tighter, pulling it close as his granddaughter slipped away. "Anna? ANNA!" He collapsed then, his sobbing renewed, while Edward kissed her hand. Even Rydia cried, the impact of what had happened too much for the child. Kain wept too, stepping forward to lay a comforting hand on Tellah's shoulder.

How long it was none of them could guess, but the floodgates shut, the exterior hardened, and Tellah rose, straightening his robes and picking up his staff. His face was cold, hardened, the friendly demeanor that had so endeared him to Rydia gone. "I swear Anna. I shall avenge you. Golbez of the Red Wings shall die, by my own hand."

Kain moved to intercept the vengeful mage, stepping between him and the exit. "Tellah, no. We need to work together in this. There's no other choice."

"Out of my way," Tellah replied with a sweep of his arm and staff. "I shall strike Golbez down with my magic. I do not need anyone else's assistance." And with that, he passed by Kain and was gone, in spite of the dragoon's protests.

Ready to go after him, Kain looked around the room at those left. Edward was still crouched over Anna's body mourning, and Kain didn't hold much hope for the Prince if he was primarily a Bard by skill, as Tellah had implied. While useful, he probably would not be so effective against the soldiers of Baron.

His concern ramped up as he saw Rydia. Though she had cried before, now she was clutchig her head in her hands, shaking. "I remember...I remember," she said repeatedly in a barely restrained monotone, and Kain got a chill through his body. This was really not the time for her memory to come back. It was the last thing he needed.

He stepped towards her, hoping to intervene before it all returned, yet it seemed to late as she noticed his approach, looking at him with teary eyes, a growing fire beneath the surface. "You," she said, accusation aimed at him. "You burned it all. You killed everyone. You, you killed my mother."

"Rydia, I can explain." Kain held up a hand in some attempt to placate her, but his continued approach, though slowed, didn't help matters.

"No no no no no! You killed my mother. You killed her dragon. What did she ever do to you? Why did you have to come and ruin everything?" Now she was getting visibly angry, and Kain had a sudden flashback to last time, when she had brought down an earthquake on everyone. He didn't want a repeat of that incident. Walking across the desert once was enough for him.

He continued to edge closer, hoping he might be able to grab her and calm her down, while he talked. "Calm down, just let me explain..."

"No! Go away go away go away!" Ice shards flew out at him and he had to jump back to dodge it, suddenly aware of how her green hair hung in the air, eyes glowing with power, and he realized that he was in a lot of trouble. "Oh boy," he muttered to himself before he had to move again, fireballs flying at him this time.

Rydia lashed out, ice, fire, lightning flying across the room and all directed at the Dragoon. He had to leap and dodge to the best of his ability, not escaping them all though the armor mitigated the hits. From behind the magic he could see Rydia's mouth moving though he wasn't sure what she was saying. The sound of magic drowned her out, though if he had had the time Kain would probably have been impressed by the sheer volume of spells she was using, how they indicated her potential as a mage in the amount she could cast.

The sound of cracking drew his attention at a most inopportune time, and he glanced up to see a network of widening cracks making their way across the ceiling, exacerbated by the magical storm that kept him from getting close to the green haired girl.

"Rydia," he called, unheeded. "You have to stop! The ceiling is going to collapse! Rydia!" His words went unheeded still, and as a large chunk crashed down he cut his losses. He had to trust she would be fine, and he instead went for the prince, who, by some miracle, hadn't moved or been touched this entire time. He grabbed his shoulder and yanked him back in spite of his own protests, hauling him out of the room. "This place is coming down and I doubt Anna would want you buried with her. So come on and shut up."

They just made it outside the building before it gave way, the ground sent shuddering by the impact, towers collapsing in on themselves, walls crumbling, burying those inside under tons of rock and stone. Kain could only watch in horror as Rydia was buried in there, trapped even if she had survived. And with her hating him he wasn't sure how he was going to manage it even if he could dig her out.

He shook his head to snap himself out of that thought process. He had a duty to atone for her on Cecil's behalf, and he wouldn't forsake that. Somehow, he would get her out.

He looked over at the empty eyed Edward, aware that the Prince had just watched everything he knew come crashing down around him. "Come on Prince. We have a job to do," he said before clambering onto the rubble, picking his way carefully towards the back and the Crystal chamber. Time to get to work.
 

Azecreth

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Chapter 5

As he dug through the broken rubble and shattered debris, Kain had to give one thing to Damcya's architects; they sure knew how to build a castle. This was evidenced to by the fact that further investigation revealed only part of the castle had collapsed under the damage it had suffered, and not the entire thing, thus making it that much easier to dig through. Some sections of walls and arches survived, making small openings of preventing rubble from shifting, which made his efforts to dig that much easier.

And he needed that, as he was currently going it alone in this effort. Edward had helped for a bit, shifting smaller pieces of furniture and rock in an apparent daze. But at some point he had wandered off to a different portion of the castle, and the dragoon had lost sight of him. Much as he wanted to go after him though, he was a bit busy.

"This is not how I imagined my day would go," Kain grumbled as he abused his lance, using it as a lever to move large chunks of fallen masonry. It pained him to do so, but he had no other choice. He did promise himself that he would give it a good rub down, sharpening, and other needed maintenance at the first opportunity though.

Shifting a particularly heavy piece of rubble, Kain glanced up to the sky that was blighted with rising dust and ash. "You better appreciate what I'm doing for you Cecil," he grunted to his friend, very much serious in his belief. If this didn't earn him some points somewhere, then he was going to be angry. He'd nearly got crushed, died of heat stroke in the desert, been attacked by his own people, and more. He couldn't wait to cash in on the karma he was building up.

Past the layer of rock wall, he got to smashed interior decoration and other detritus, a layer of dust, shattered wood, shredded banners, broken furniture, dented metal, and crushed, lacerated bodies. He had to maneuver carefully around the last, not too eager to disturb the fallen, even if he needed to get by. There were citizens coming from the nearby towns, if he had to guess, and they could handle the cleanup and burial. He had his own problems to worry about.

The sun was sinking lower in the sky as he sifted through the crumpled shell of the Great Hall and the crystal room, where that last conflict had taken place. It still wasn't easy, given the large area to be covered, and Edward had yet to reappear, but he was making slightly visible process, if the piles of debris could be considered that.

Then, a breakthrough. Moving aside a span of wooden timber, he found yellow light emanating through the misshapen cracks that had been formed by the collapse. It didn't look like a normal fire to trained eyes, and that spurred him on as he moved faster to shift debris away from the path of the light, so he could see what was creating it.

The revelation made him pull up in surprise. It was Rydia, curled up into a ball and eyes shut tight, ignoring the entire world around her as dry sobs wracked her body, all her tears expended in sorrow. As for how she was here, now, it seemed patently obvious to Kain, now that he was able to see the golden orb of the 'Protect' spell wrapped around her, that she must have used at the last second.

Still, to be firing off spells like that, and use a Protect spell that held up under all that stuff that fell on top of her? Rydia must be a stronger summoner than he thought. Of course, that should have been obvious when she caused that massive earthquake, but this kind of confirmation... Now he could partially understand why the King wanted to get rid of the summoners, though it still didn't justify what they had done.

Now, to the hard part. "Rydia, Rydia," he said in a loud voice as he moved to stand next to the glowing bubble. "Can you hear me? I need you to drop the Protect spell for me." But she gave no appearance that she had heard, except a slight flinch and a tightening of her frame even further.

Holding in a sigh of exhaustion and exasperation at what he was doing right now, Kain moved closer still, right next to the protective wall that was cool to the feel. "Please Rydia, I just want to talk. But I doubt you want to have this conversation here, and I know I don't. So drop the spell so we can go somewhere else and talk. I know you can hear me."

Again, no reaction besides a slight shake of her head. Now he did sigh, and rapped his knuckles on the side of the sphere in order to provoke a response, or her attention. Which was why he didn't expect the spell to flat out vanish with a flash under the easy blow, Rydia dropping with a thud to the cratered ground as the spell was at last overwhelmed ad failed entirely.

It was an event that Rydia apparently hadn't been expecting either as bloodshot eyes flew open when she hit the ground. "Aah," she cried in surprise and pain, and she uncurled to rub her bruised bottom and lower back as she looked up at Kain with as much a glare as she could muster. "Go away," she said, voice weak and gravely, yet still angry, if not pouty.

Kain shook his head as he moved closer, only to have her scramble back until she was pressed against a makeshift wall of stone, glass, and wood. "If you think I'm going to leave a little girl like yourself here, after I gave Cecil my word, you don't know me very well."

"What do you care murderer," she shot back, tone laced with anger and pain. "I don't know you at all. So just leave me here. I can take care of myself."

It was at times like these that Kain remembered how terrible he was in dealing with children in serious situations, and he couldn't help but notice how obstinate she was. Like a certain Dragoon when he was younger. Supposedly.

He continued to crouch as he met Rydia's eyes. "Look. I'm not going to lie. We did that. But me and Cecil didn't know that that would happen. We didn't know the King wanted to destroy Mist. But who was it that carried you across the desert, who fought soldiers from Baron to protect you? Cecil was willing to rebel to do what he thought was right, and I have to honor his memory and last wishes. I became a traitor for you, so why do you think I'd just abandon you now?"

His honesty wasn't the most welcome thing from Rydia's perspective, but as he spoke he could see at least the glimmer of realization beginning to war with hatred in her eyes as she remembered what he spoke of, the fight in Kaipo, the two of them traveling together, how he'd risked his life to protect her when he could have easily done the opposite. But he put up with her. He cared for her.

Still, she wasn't about to trust him just yet. Not after what he'd done. But she could theoretically tolerate him and his existence, a little. She'd see what happened.

"I'm not asking that you forgive me, but I'm not leaving you here. Got it," Kain finished, waiting to see the outcome of the struggle in Rydia's head.

At last she made her mind up, eyes settling into dull indifference as she rose from where she sat. "Fine," she replied. "I'll travel with you. But don't expect me to like you." She gave Kain a cold look as she brushed past him, out into the castle.

Kain turned to watch her go with a slight frown and a shake of his head. He had the sneaking suspicion that he'd be getting the cold shoulder for a while. Still, he supposed it was better than her trying to kill him. It would just take time. He hoped.

Alone for the moment, he looked around the area once more, considering whether he should try to recover the rest of the Royal Family to give them a proper burial, so they wouldn't have to wait.

At last, he decided against it and walked off at a brisk pace to go find Rydia and Edward. Much as he might want to, he would leave the settlement of that entire affair to the citizens of the nearby towns when they arrived. He wasn't a Damcyan, so it wasn't really his place to do anything. And if there was one thing he was, it was heedful of authority.

Once more he worked his way back through the debris of the castle, along shells of hallways and shifting rubble, crashes and the sound of falling debris, mixing with the crackle of fire as material burned. He took it all in as he made his way from the crystal room he had been in o wherever the two had gone.

Arriving at last, he spotted Rydia standing next to Edward, who was currently crouched in a smaller room that had escaped the collapse caused by the magical outburst, but not the damage from the Red Wings attack. Kain silently made his way over to see what was up, as they didn't seem to have noticed him yet. It looked like they were in some sort of bedroom, and it looked like the Prince had put a lot of effort into shifting the stone that filled it, looking for something or other that had been buried within.

And at a glance, he seemed to have found it. Held in shaking hands was a dirtied picture of two people, and his shoulders heaved as tears fell in a slow, staggered pattern. At the same time, Rydia stood beside him, looking at both him and the picture he held, sharing in his sadness with blinking eyes and tears of her own, her fists clenched.

Moving up behind them, Kain saw that the picture looked to be of Edward and Anna, both dressed up and smiling, which honestly wasn't that much of a surprising turn of events in the dragoons consideration. A hand came to a rest on Edward's shoulder, stilling it as he gave a soft, placating expression to the Prince.

"Prince Edward, I'm sorry to have to ask this right now, but what happened here? Did the Red Wings say why they wanted the Crystal?" It was an important question in terms of figuring out what Baron was up to, and what their next move would be.

Fighting back sniffles, as if he had to remember he had to at least pretend to be strong, Edward looked up at the blue dragoon looming near him. "Golbez said that Baron wanted to take the Crystal to affirm their power, or something, and to make a lesson for the other Kingdoms." He frowned, looking down to the picture again as he remembered. "They attacked without warning, or declaration. We didn't have time to prepare. It was a slaughter."

"Who's Golbez," Kain asked, the name for the most part unfamiliar.

Now Edward seemed confused in turn. "You don't know? But I thought you were a Dragoon of Baron."

"I was...am," Kain replied, still unsure as to his current position in things. "I've been out of the loop for a bit, so when you and Tellah said his name was the first time I've heard of him."

"Oh." Confusion subsided as Kain explained himself, and Edward seemed to accept that. "Golbez is the new Captain of the Red Wings, and an apparent favorite of the King, as well as a Dark Knight. At least, that's what I've been told."

Kain grit his teeth, none too pleased to hear the news. True, it would have happened regardless as a result of Cecil's death, but it was still a shock to hear that this had been done by his replacement. He had to guess that they were two very different individuals. "I see." He paused, considering what this had to mean.

"First Mysidia, now Damcya...What use does Baron have for two of the Crystals," he wondered aloud. "Baron doesn't need two. It managed to run everything without any crystals before, so it won't matter there. Of course, why would they just stop at two? Golbez said this was meant to intimidate, so..."

Realization dawned in a slow manner, a result of following logic to it's end, and he glanced over to Rydia, who pointedly kept from looking at him. "I need to get to Fabul," he announced as he looked back to Edward. "If Baron already has two, they'll want the rest, and Fabul is the closest one from here. I need to warn them of what could be coming. And I'll do what I can to avenge what happened here."

Picture still held tightly, Edward nodded. "Thank you Sir Kain."

The dragoon then shifted his attention back to Rydia, ignoring the blatant hostility he received. "You don't have to come with me if you don't want to. It's likely I'll be going into danger, so I won't force you to follow me. I'm sure Prince Edward can find you a place to stay in one of the nearby villages."

Rydia cocked her head in thought, short green hair shifting with the motion, before she shook her head. "No, I'll come with," she replied, now looking at him as their eyes met, and he was taken slightly aback to see the fire that had replaced indifference there. "I'm going to make them pay for what they did."

That was probably something he should look out for in the future, since he had the feeling it might cause him a lot more headaches going on. He didn't need her going off in the middle of a fight or something. Still, he had the feeling that trying to change her mind was a losing battle.

"Alright," he ceded. "I'm going to have to stock up on supplies first though. The trip to Fabul from here isn't exactly short. Or easy."

At the mention of the trip, Edward seemed to perk up. "Actually, I think I can help with that," he said as he rose to his feet, clutching the picture between white stained knuckles. "Follow me."

Curiosity abounded between the summoner and the dragoon, one sided animosity laid aside as they turned and followed Edward to another part of the castle together, ending up at an area that reminded Kain a lot of Cid's workshop back in Baron. Construction equipment, metal frames, the other things that advanced manufacturing would need, were all here.

Through this Edward walked, slowing to a sedate step as memories recalled themselves, but the two behind didn't intervene in that, beyond the green haired girl stepping forward to take Edward's hand and give it a comforting squeeze as Kain kept to the rear. No one spoke, as Edward remembered times now lost in a blaze of fire and clash of metal.

At last they arrived at a set of wooden doors, hanging open somewhat from shattered hinges. With a bit of work though they all managed to slip through them to the garage beyond. Metal girders and stone had fallen, cluttering the room, though not as badly as a place like the throne room, and the main item of interest was still intact. That was a vehicle of sorts, built with a closed cabin for a number of people, and painted in orange and yellow. On the back was a large propeller to move it, with small fins to turn, and on the bottom was special metal, imbued with Float enchantments and aided by downward air pressure from the engines, so it could hover above the ground. Why Baron hadn't destroyed it was a good question, but Kain was willing to let that slide for the moment.

Edward came back to reality as they entered, and sped forward while the other two with him watched on. "Okay, I think it still works," he announced as he opened the front door and hopped in, checking over gauges and dials. "This should make your trip to Fabul a lot faster."

"An aircar," Kain asked, almost incredulous as he looked at the vehicle.

"Yeah," Edward confirmed as Rydia joined him to look over the machine in wonder. "Just because we don't have airships doesn't mean Damcya is technologically backwards. We just focused on other things."

He shot a glare at the Dragoon, and Kain winced, only realizing how insulting he must have sounded right after he had said it. Oh well, not much he could do about it now. "Sorry," Kain said as he joined the other two, though he stood next to the car and not in it. "This will be a big help."

"Don't worry about it," Edward demurred as he turned back to the dashboard. "It's the least I can do. Anna...Anna would want me to help you guys as much as possible." His voice threatened to crack, but he managed to keep it under control, for the moment.

Kain fell silent as Rydia ceased bouncing on the padded seat with the shift in mood. In the silence, they could make out hurried shouts and the sound of people approaching the castle, responders from the nearby villages and towns arriving at last.

With an implied sigh, Edward rose form his seat and exited the aircar, facing the oncoming scattered groups of anxious people. "I guess I have to tell them what happened," he said sadly, shoulders sagging under the weight of responsibility thrust upon him.

"Don't worry, we'll help out," Kain replied as he and Rydia joined the young Prince to look out to the plains and the day ahead.

"Yeah," Rydia added, stepping up to Edward's side, opposite where Kain was.

The Prince smiled at the show of support, the aid in the task that now presented itself for him. He wasn't sure if he was prepared, if he was qualified to be the kind of King his father was, to live up to his legacy. But for his family, for Anna, he had to at least try. Much as he might lack confidence, he knew that much.

"Thank you both, really," he said, and taking a deep breath, stepped forward to meet his subjects, with the summoner and dragoon following behind. Time to tell them the bad news, and then get to work.

[HR][/HR]
The day had passed by, and night had fallen over Damcyan Castle. Barely a dent had been made in the devastation caused by the attack and subsequent explosion of magic, but they had made a small impression via brute force labor, with Edward's direction (though he had helped out as well).

Sadly, the search for survivors hadn't gone so well, only a handful retrieved thus far. It was easier away from the central keep at the wings, which had suffered at most bombs and cannon fire. But Baron's soldiers had been merciless when resisted, and many of the people they did find were too far gone to really be helped. It brought Kain to more wistful thoughts that Rosa was here, how she would throw herself into the work of healing with casual disregard for her won welfare, a devotion that brought a smile to his face.

As for survivors from the Baron forces, well, there weren't any. Most of their wounded appeared to have been evacuated, and the rest had perished some time before being recovered by Damcyan forces.

Now though, they had paused from the work of looking for survivors and clearing damage to gather together. In a large half circle, torches interspersed to light the night, they stood beside the crypt that rested apart from the main keep, the royal tombs in which the Damcyan kings of old slept in final repose. Before the large stone doors sat three wooden pallets, on which rested the King, the Queen, and Anna. They looked peaceful, calm, compared to their end, and every effort had been made to make sure that they were of good appearance.

The crowd murmured, watching, filled with soft cries and other expressions of sadness, swelling with emotion as Edward walked to the fore. His clothes had been cleaned, as much as was possible, and he he gave an air of composure, though it threatened to break as he looked to his family and then the crowd.

His mouth worked wordlessly for a few moments, struggling to find the words to say, to express what he was thinking. He still held to the picture he had recovered earlier, glancing down at it repeatedly before sending a pleading look to Kain and Rydia, who stood off to the side, if a bit distant from each other.

Rydia shot him a beaming smile, while Kain gave a curt nod, each seeking to tell him that they had confidence in him. And it worked, as Edward seemed to lighten up, at least a little.

At last he began. "I...Thank you all for coming, on today of all days. It means a lot to see how many people respected my father, and how many support the Kingdom. I know he'd be glad, and my mother would be as well."

He frowned. "But, much as I might like them to be, they aren't. Neither is my fiance Anna. Or a lot of people. They were killed by Golbez, by the Red Wings, by the Kingdom of Baron. And why? For power, for our Crystal, because they wanted to show the world that they know how to kill and can force their will upon anyone they want. It wasn't fair, it wasn't right, but it happened anyway.

I can't claim to know what's going to happen. I don't know if I can be a good King for you, one that deserves your respect, your loyalty and admiration. But I'll try to be worthy of you all, to honor the legacy left for me. And I'll do what I can to make sure those we lost did not die in vain, and that their sacrifice is not forgotten.
War isn't something I want. It isn't something any of us should want. No one wants to have the opportunity to go get killed in a pointless fight. But Baron isn't going to stop with us. We need to take a stand. And we will. But for now, we will mourn, we will rebuild, and we will never forget."

Falling silent, he turned to the three pallets laid out before him, crouching down to slowly, with all his sadness, regret, lay chapped lips on his father's forehead, and then his mothers. "Goodbye father, mother," he muttered to each of them, tears long ago exhausted.

He then moved to the third pallet. Anna laid there, serene and peaceful, skin pale in a way that made her look almost like a porcelain doll. Edward's calm expression cracked, hand rising to delicately brush errant strands of hair away before tracing along her cheek with the back of his hand.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." He could hardly contain himself as he dropped lower still, bending over her as his lips met hers, imagining warmth, reciprocation, her breath on his skin, the ghosts of times gone by. It seemed to last forever as the crowd watched on in mutual heartbreak with their Prince.

At last he tore away, as if not doing so meant he would never stop, wiping beneath his eyes with his sleeve in the process as he rose. "To-Today we pay our final respects," he said, trembling past the near yell he forced loose as he faced the crowd once more.. "Honor guard, approach."

From the crowd separated several individuals, selected by lottery, who took up positions next to the pallet they had each been assigned. Most held themselves high, trying to comport themselves with the dignity of their position, though it was obviously a challenge.

On a signal, they bent down, getting a strong hold on provided extensions, and together they lifted the pallets off the ground, struggling silently beneath the shared weight. Lacking trumpets for a procession, there was a nod from Edward, and led by him, they walked together into the crypt, soon lost to the sight of the crowd.

The path was lit by set torches as they walked amongst the stone coffins, down the stairs and back, past recorded history, kings of old, until they arrived at the three coffins that had been prepared, next to Edward's grandfather, and his great grandfather. One after the other, the King, Queen, and Anna were laid to rest, Edward giving each a long, last look as the stone lids were put in place and the coffins sealed, separating him from them with a certain finality.

He hoped it was good enough, that Tellah would approve of him laying Anna with the Damcyan Royal family rather than somewhere else. And he hoped that his parents were alright with the sparse funeral. There would be a memorial ceremony later, but it just wouldn't be the same. He just hoped they would understand that that was all that could be done in the midst of a major crisis.

Silently, the group, with Edward bringing up the rear, returned to the surface. A spin, and all faced the door, giving it a salute as the crypt was sealed once more, until it should be needed again. "Thank you, all of you," Edward said to the crowd as the ceremony ended and the crowd dispersed to return to work.

The Prince approached the dragoon and summoner who stood a short distance away with slow steps, the burden he now held weighing upon him. "For what it's worth, I think you'll be a good King," Kain told him as he came up to them.

Edward paused, and Kain could see new resolve glimmering in his eyes. "I...I want to come with you."
Not quite what he had expected to hear, and that left Kain unsure as to how to react. "Are you sure? I mean, is it a good idea to leave Damcya without her ruler?"

"It's fine." The response was smooth, planned. "Marshal Patterson will be organizing things here and preparing the troops. They all can manage without me for a while." He gestured off to the side, where a man with thick black sideburns in a Royal Damcyan Army uniform stood talking to some workers, an action that hid Edward's sad smile.

"Please," he asked, drawing attention back to himself. "I have to do this. For my family, and for Anna. I owe it to them. I-I, I don't know what I'd do with myself otherwise."

Faced with that preparation, and the certainty that Edward expressed, Kain considered the notion, the assistance that the Prince could provide. His combat skills weren't all that great, if he had to guess, though he should at least know basic self defense. And his pull as the Prince of Damcya would be useful. And then, there was the fact that he might do something stupid otherwise that he'd regret. And then where would they be?

"Fine," he replied at last, earning a grin from Edward. "We'd be honored to have you along with us."
Edward bowed, enthusiastic in his gesture. "Thank you. You don't regret this."

"Don't worry, I'll look after you," Rydia chimed in happily, with a confident grin. "We'll find Sage Tellah and then beat Golbez and Baron together."

Ignoring just how uncomfortable that statement must have been for Kain, with the serious intent behind it, Edward looked down to the girl, touched. "Right," he agreed.

Feeling very much the odd man out at the moment, due to him being from Baron and all, Kain wasn't about to be daunted by the task that they faced. Even with the three of them, it wasn't going to be easy, of that he was sure. "Okay then. Well, get some rest. We'll leave first thing in the morning."

That said, he turned off to go help out as much he could in the work that was still left, while Rydia joined Edward, sparing only a quick look to watch him go. "We have to stick together," she said, taking his hand in hers and clinging to it. "We have to make Baron pay for all the people they killed. All of them."

The prince shivered at the dark aura that seemed to manifest around the girl beside him, and at the thought of what she must have gone through to be so willing to turn the power he had seen against Baron. "Come on," he replied, pulling her forward. "Let's go see if we can find my harp."

Rydia nodded and followed after eagerly as they walked off together into the ruins, while the dual moons hung in the sky, casting their judgment down on the Earth.
 

Azecreth

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Chapter 6

It was a triumphant return for the Red Wings as the fleet of airships returned to Baron. They had taken the Crystal as well as a bunch of other loot and treasure, and shown Damcya who was in charge, for a relatively low body count in return. Even Golbez seemed satisfied by this outcome, at least for the moment.

But not everyone was thrilled with this recent sequence of events. There was a murmuring discontent about how they had gone about this, and even about the basis of the attack itself. Such opinions were muted though, subdued either in light of their success, or due to fear of reprisal.

This viewpoint was one that was held uneasily by Cecil as he stood near the prow of the ship, watching the castle and town rising before the fleet. He couldn't dismiss what he had seen, the attack and the murder of Damcya's royal couple. He played over what had occurred, what he could have done differently, yet found himself impotent in the face of the favor Golbez had with the King.

A cold gaze rested beneath his helmet as he watched, thinking on this recent affair in Damcya, as well as Mysidia, and his uncertainty returned. He wanted to serve the King, the man who had been like a foster father to him, but how could he accept that what they had done was right? Even if it was a step closer to regaining what he had lost, was it worth the cost?

And yet at the same time he found himself growing desensitized to the violence, indifferent, and it worried him. He knew that there would be a cost for becoming a Dark Knight, and this was it, but to realize it was happening was a whole other matter to accepting it as a fact.

He was silent, taciturn in his thoughts as the airships came in to land in the main field they had departed from. Men of the Royal Guard, as well as the Engineer Corp were there to greet them, having been alerted to their arrival via semaphore earlier. Repair equipment rested almost haphazardly about, buffeted by the backwash from the rotor blades as as the ships came to a rest of the ground.

Ramps dropped to the ground with a series of thuds, and Golbez was first to depart the airship, with Cecil flanking him, and approached the waiting crowd. "Sir Golbez, I'm glad to see you have returned," Baigan commented as they approached. "I trust your mission was a success?"

"Yes," Golbez replied succinctly as the imposing figure came to a rest in front of the Captain. "I have a prize to present to His Majesty."

Baigan nodded, a calm expression on his face in spite of how intimidating Golbez could be.

"Of course. His Majesty is waiting for you. If you'll follow me..." He spun on his heels and began to walk off, Golbez following closely behind him.

Before Cecil could go with them, he was confronted by a grinning Cid. "Well, glad to see you made it back in one piece," the engineer barked while slapping an armored shoulder. "And you even brought all my babies back intact."

"Yeah," Cecil replied, his own solemn mood shattered by the presence of the upbeat engineer. "There wasn't much of a chance of either happening."

Cid seemed satisfied with that as he looked over the row of ships before him, from which soldiers departed with captured goods and supplies. There would be an abundance of Damcyan weapons, coins, and other items in Baron for a bit. After all, gold was still gold, and some people would want the souvenirs.

But while Cid was machine obsessed and a workaholic, he did notice that something was up with the dark knight beside him. And as a friend who cared about both him and Rosa, it was worrisome, especially when taken in addition to how he'd been acting since he went to Mysidia. "Hey, you alright there? You seem a bit gloomy."

Cecil frowned, finding it difficult to describe how he was really feeling at the moment, the turmoil and uncertainty. "I'm not sure I like the direction the King is taking Baron," he admitted quietly, so as to not be heard by the disembarking men, most of whom were looking forward to relaxing after a time of traveling and fighting. For all that had happened, they at least deserved that.

Cid nodded in understanding. "Can't say I disagree with that. I didn't sign up to make warships," he replied, his own voice undiminished. Yet he then shrugged. "Still, the King pays well, and no one else is really operating airships, so a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do for his livelihood and family."

It was that frankness and fearlessness that made Cecil respect Cid. The engineer wasn't afraid to voice his opinion, even if he knew others would disagree. It was a freedom that Cecil, as a Dark Knight and servant of the King, lacked. Though in turn Cecil had more things to worry about than simply his own position and family.

He was interrupted before he could respond. "Sir Cecil, will you be joining us," called Baigan from where he and Golbez stood waiting.

"Of course. My apologies," Cecil replied with a nod before moving to join them.

His forward motion was halted for a few brief moments as Cid called after him though. "Make sure you see Rosa later, alright? Don't want the lady to be worried about you." That said, the engineer moved off to go do maintenance on the airship fleet, with all the vigor and yelling that that involved.

Rejoining Golbez and Baigan, they proceeded into the castle, moving through the halls while passerbyers cleared out of the way. Two Dark Knights, one of whom was Commander of the Red Wings, and the head of the Royal Guards, were quite the intimidating presence to behold. And it paid off, allowing them to quickly arrive at the antechamber to the throne room.

"Please wait here," Baigan instructed before vanishing into the throne room to inform the King of their presence. The two stood there quietly, Golbez not one for idle chit chat and busy with his own thoughts, while Cecil was not sure what to say about what had happened.

Baigan returned after a minute or so and led them into the familiar throne room, past alert guards and servants, to the base of the stairs that led to the throne itself. Baigan took up a position off to the side, ready to intervene if he should have to, while the two knights knelt before their liege.

The King looked down on them from his throne, examining each in turn. "Rise, Sir Golbez, Sir Cecil," he instructed with a gesture, a demand that was quickly followed by the two. "So, how went your mission?"

Golbez took a step forward, cape sweeping about with his motion. "A success. Damcya has been gutted, and shall no longer be a threat to your rule."

"And your other mission?"

Golbez went up the steps, stopping at the top whilst a gloved hand reached behind his cape, emerging with a glittering crystal. He held it in both hands and raised it up as his head bowed in respect. "My lord, I present you with Damcya's Crystal."

The King rose from his throne, expression neutral as he approached Golbez and took the Crystal from him. He took a few seconds to look it over, into the shimmering depths, before shifting his gaze back to the knight. "Thank you for this service to the kingdom. With this success we move one step closer to cementing Baron's place as the dominant power in this world."

Such rhetoric was hardly new, yet it was still concerning to Cecil. It wasn't just the shift from cooperation to superiority that had taken place, but also the implication that this wouldn't be the end, and that he might be called on to do more like that in the future.

That said, Golbez got back on his feet and stepped back to the spot he had started from, while the King looked over to Cecil, still serious in manner. "I appreciate your service as well, Sir Cecil. Such work will soon result in the restoration of your honor and position."

The King returned with the Crystal to his throne, handing off the artifact to one of the servants standing next to him, to presumably be stored with the other Crystal that had been taken from Mysidia so recently.

Cecil, who had held his silence up to that point, felt compelled to speak, to get the answers in spite of the danger it presented by precedence, and he stepped forward to speak. "Forgive me, Your Highness, but I must ask, was all that occurred necessary? Damcya posed no threat to us, and by killing the King we only alienate the rest of the world even further."

There was a pause and a descending silence as Cecil's voice died away, his question asked. Frowning, the King turned to look down at Cecil, and the Dark Knight flinched at the expression, not as a result of it, but because in that moment the King looked like an entirely different person. "Rest assured Sir Cecil, what I do, I do of sound mind for the betterment of the Kingdom of Baron. I would have thought you had learned not to question my judgment by now, but apparently I was wrong."

Bated breath waited for some wrathful punishment, but it did not come. "Now then. I would like to discuss something with Sir Golbez in private. You are dismissed," the King added with a wave. The audience ended, Cecil nodded before turning on his heels and departing the throne room.

He hadn't made it far past the antechamber when he was approached by Rosa, the white mage moving at a slightly fast walk while wearing a look of subdued happiness. "Welcome back," she said as she came to a stop in front of him. "I wanted to meet you when you landed, but there were wounded to care for, and I could only get free to see you now."

Cecil smiled, an action that was beginning to feel strangely foreign to him as he witnessed Rosa's compassion on display. "It's alright," he replied. "I wouldn't have expected anything less." Besides, it wasn't like he hadn't been busy as well.

If Cid could pick up on his unease, it was easy for Rosa to do so as well. But she didn't immediately attempt to find out the reason. And at the same time it was overshadowed by the relief that he had made it back unharmed.

"Come on, let's get out of this hallway," she offered, and Cecil nodded in agreement. The two of them moved to get away from this main thoroughfare, heading through the castle together side by side. It was a sight that many had become used to over the years as the duo grew. The only difference was the painful absence of the third member of the trio, and both of them could pointedly feel Kain's absence.

They soon arrived at one of the small gardens inside the keep, a small fountain bubbling away in the middle of the courtyard, flowers and bushes arranged around it with careful precision. It was one of the spots they didn't spend a lot of time in, but it was out of the way and was also a place that both enjoyed being in.

Rosa took a spot near the sculpted fountain on one of the stone benches, and looked up at Cecil. "I take it your current mood is because of the king," she asked, getting straight to the heart of the matter.

Cecil nodded, staying where he was rather than sitting down. "We attacked Damcya without provocation, burned their castle, took their crystal by force." The weight of his words weighed down on him as his shoulders sagged in spite of himself. "Golbez cut down the royal family in front of my eyes. And the King congratulated us for it."

Rosa frowned, her own displeasure written across her features upon hearing that. "But, how could he do that? He knows the other Kingdom's won't stand for it."

"I don't know," Cecil replied with a shake of his head. "I don't think he cares. And I think he plans on going after the other crystals as well."

Concern was common across the both of them, and Rosa looked up to Cecil as he half paced about in agitation. "I'm guessing you don't agree with this."

"Of course I don't," Cecil replied with a hint of anger in his tone, trying to restrain himself while talking to Rosa, for her sake, "It's not right, it's dishonorable, and it's not necessary. But we do it anyway. It's like His Majesty is an entirely different person."

Fortunately for him, with the whispering in his mind that he ignored most of the time, Rosa was there to act as a voice of reason. "I believe you. Things are getting out of hand," she said simply. "And I know Cid feels the same way, though he's devoted to his airships. But what can we do about it, with just the three of us?"

Cecil sat down next to her, glad for her support and to have her by his side in this, but it was still hard to deal with, to say the least. "I...I don't know," he admitted. "I mean, I owe the King my loyalty, and my trust. But I can't just sit idly by while Baron heads down a path I don't think we should be following. I need to know if I'm doing the right thing."

Rosa leaned over to place a comforting hand atop his own. "Well, what do you believe? You're the best judge of whether you're doing the right thing. And I have confidence in your certainty of beliefs."

It was times like these that Cecil was glad Rosa was here. For all her kindness, compassion, and selfless determination to help others, she wasn't dumb, and while he was held in distraction by his conflicting beliefs and loyalties, she could think much clearer in spite of that. So if anyone could offer him the advice he needed, besides Cid, it would be her. Though they could never be together as a result of their differing paths in life, these were the times he found himself relying on her, rather than the reverse.

At last he gave her his answer. "It's wrong," he said with near complete certainty. "I cannot believe that unprovoked attacks and cold murder are the actions of a just nation and a just ruler. And it needs to be stopped. But I don't know how to do that when it's just the three of us against the Kingdom. They believe the King, and if I try to speak against him, we'll just be ridiculed and thrown in jail."

Rosa smiled to see how certain he had become, now that his mind had been made up, and she turned to the problem he had poised as well. "Well, there have to be some people who feel like you. We just have to find them. Perhaps you could start with the Red Wings?"

Cecil's head tilted as he considered that. He could think of a few people who might fit that description, though he wouldn't say for certain at this point. "Perhaps I will," he agreed. His spirits had definitely been buoyed somewhat, and now that he had his mind set he could feel a growing determination of purpose. "Thank you."

'You're welcome," Rosa replied, hands returning to her lap as she saw the change in mood playing itself out, "So, will you be here for dinner tonight?"

Cecil rose from where he was seated, ready to move on, and he looked down at Rosa with a warm expression. "Hopefully, unless circumstances turn out otherwise. Until then." With that, and a wave, he departed the courtyard, leaving Rosa to rise and depart as well to get back to caring for the wounded and other affairs.

A quick trip through the castle brought him back to his quarters, where upon arrival he began to prepare by removing his armor, reasoning that going out in it wouldn't be very circumspect, nor conducive to getting conversations going. As one piece fell away, then another, it felt liberating to strip away the black steel, a weight off of his soul as it was removed and a breath of fresh air. At the same time though, it sparked irrational fear, a feeling of uneasiness, vulnerability, and a part of his mind called to him to put it back on, lest he be exposed to harm.

In spite of the pull of that sensation, he finished and carefully stored the armor away for later use. He then prepared to head out, taming his white hair with a brush before shrugging on some casual clothes, a tunic and pants, with a brown cloak added to it. Not so much a disguise as comfortable traveling clothes, he wore it nonetheless and moved on to the other things he had to take care of before he could leave.

Those affairs took about half an hour before he emerged, moving out of the keep and into the bustling town beyond. Crowds of people flowed around him, going about their day and business while the daylight hours lasted. He had his own destination though, so he didn't spend much time being observant of what he saw. It wasn't that unusual anyway.

It was hard not to dwell on the soldiers stationed on street corners though, the patrols there to ostensibly keep order within the city. He didn't try to hide his presence, since that would have drawn suspicion, but he didn't try to otherwise stand out either. He'd had a bit of experience in this.

Not too far from the castle he arrived at the Eagle's Beak, a pub frequented by the members of the Red Wings, and it loudly proclaimed that fact. It was a place for them to relax after missions and blow off steam, so long as no property damage occurred, or tabs got too high.

With a deep breath, Cecil stepped through the atmosphere into the warm atmosphere of the pub, whilst being covered in a wash of conversation. The pub was a bit more than half full of men recovering and celebrating in the homey atmosphere from their recent victory. Tables were crowded around, made of dark oak and mahogany, with a nearby crackling fireplace, and a large bar from behind which the bartender could be seen preparing drinks.

Paying no mind to whatever looks he might attract from the men already there, he strode up to the bar and laid some Gil on the wooden countertop. "Ale," he said succinctly, and swiftly received a mug in return.
Drink in hand, he walked away to take a position near the far corner of the pub, where he could look on everyone present. Taking a small sip, his gaze was calculating, thoughtful, considering who whom he could approach on this understandably delicate subject.

As it just so happened, he ended up not having to. Instead, he was first approached by two men, holding their own drinks though they didn't seem drunk as of yet. "Hello sir," Biggs said as he and Wedge came to a rest in front of the dark knight. "Mind if we join you?"

"Go ahead," Cecil replied with a withheld shrug and a slight gesture with his drink.

The two did just that, and there was silence for a few brief moments before Wedge spoke. "Well then, this is quite a thing, isn't it sir?"

"Yep," Biggs agreed. "Going off and attacking the other kingdoms, quite a change from the old days if you ask me."

Cecil glanced down to his drink before he spoke as well. If memory served, these two had voiced doubts as to what Baron was doing before, so it seemed safe to talk to them. "Not exactly what you signed up for, is it? So tell me, what do you think about how things are going around here? I will admit I have my own doubts."

Biggs and Wedge looked at each other, surprised that Cecil wasn't shutting them down like he had before. The two straightened to a more attentive, conspiratorial posture before Biggs replied. "Well, now that you mention it, there are a few things..."

[HR][/HR]
Night had passed to day, and the trio had only gotten a few hours of sleep each in the interim. The rest of their time was spent salvaging things from Damcyan Castle, continuing efforts to find survivors, and a steady stream of volunteers and heavy equipment arriving.

Edward had eventually recovered his harp, and then spent the rest of the time either coordinating the emergency efforts as best he could, or entertaining Rydia. For her part, Rydia avoided Kain when she could, stuck near Edward, and helped where she could. And Kain helped out the rescuers while preparing for the journey to Fabul.

But the sun had rose at last, and the time to leave had arrived. The work needed to get the air car operational had been completed, and the vehicle now rested on the plain beyond the moat. A crowd, dusty, dirty, tired, but present nonetheless, had gathered at the vehicle, summoned by Prince Edward. He looked as dirty and tired as the rest of them, and stood with Kain, Rydia, and Marshall Patterson.

He'd mustered his courage and raised a hand, bringing the talk to an end, before he began to speak. "We've all had a long night, so I'll make this quick. I want to thank you all again for everything you've done. It's a lot to ask, and it's a debt I can never repay."

He glanced off to the trio beside him, shuffling nervously before he resumed. "But I'm going to have to ask you for more. It's going to be hard work to rebuild, and that is important. But there's a bigger conflict going on here, Barons attack won't be the last. This is why I'm leaving you now, to go to Fabul, Troia, and Mysidia, to tell them what happened so we can fight back and end the threat Baron poses to us."

Discontented low tones rippled through the crowd, but Edward spoke over those, taken up in the fervor of the moment. "It's not what you want to hear, and it's not what I want to do, but until Baron has been defeated we will never be safe, and we will have wasted the sacrifice of those lost here." He gestured to the side. "Marshal Patterson will rule in my stead while I am away."

Marshal Patterson stepped forward then, uniform still somehow untouched of the dirt despite his involvement in getting everything under control. "Thank you Your Majesty, rest assured the Kingdom is in well hands. We look forward to your eventual return."

"Of course," Edward replied, turning to face the Marshal. "I will not let the Kingdom down." With that, the speech was over, and Kain opened the door of the aircar to allow Rydia and Edward to enter, the latter giving a way to his gathered subjects before he got in, and Kain closed the door behind him.

Through the window, Edward could see as the assembled soldiers oriented to the aircar as a mass, and snapped off a salute, with Patterson doing the same, and the crowd was scattered with waves, whilst others looked neutral or otherwise despondent. And seeing that, he was struck with doubt once more. He knew the reason why he was going, and that it made sense, but was he doing the right thing for the Kingdom, leaving it like this? He just didn't know.

He stood there engrossed in his thoughts until a glove landed on his shoulder, shaking him from his reverie. "Prince Edward, it's time we be going," Kain said, motioning to the controls for the vehicle. Sadly, the dragoon didn't know how to work it himself, and there wasn't time to learn, so it would have to be Edward who piloted the craft.

"Ah, right. Sorry," Edward replied, shifting past Kain to get at the controls. Sitting down, he fiddled with dials and levers, using what little experience he did have with the craft to get it activated. The aircar rose to hover slightly above the ground, a cushion of air present that nullified what effects walking would have. A bit more work and he eased the throttle forward, the aircar sliding forward as propellers whirred and pushed it against what little resistance there was.

The crowd and castle faded away as they moved along towards Mount Hobs, the travel quick and easy compared to walking, since not only could they ignore terrain for the most part, but they also were able to avoid monster attacks, with their maneuverability and speed. And any that did get close enough were thwarted by the metal walls of the vehicle.

In transit, with the mountain range looming in the distance, Edward glanced over to the dragoon seated beside him. "So, Sir Kain, what's the plan," he asked.

Kain, having been taking the moment to rest before they had to go through the mountains to Fabul, opened his eyes to consider where they were. "I thought planning was your duty, Your Majesty."

Edward frowned, diverting his attention between the conversation and the path ahead. "Please, just call me Edward," he said. "I'm not a King yet."

"Alright. As long as you drop the sir," Kain replied.

"Okay," Edward agreed with a nod. "As for why, you have more experience than I do when it comes to this sort of thing, so it makes the most sense for you to be in charge."

"I guess." Kain shrugged, before he went on, glancing back to Rydia, who was sitting in back with eyes closed and head bowed, the last thing she had said being to leave her alone so she could meditate. And he would give her an A for effort there. "The plan thus far is to get to Fabul, warn them of what Baron has been doing so they can organize their defenses, then move to to Troia and do the same. Once we've got a coalition together, then we can worry about taking the fight to baron and reclaiming the Crystals."

He would admit it himself, it wasn't the best plan. But at least it was a plan, and that was what counted, and Edward didn't complain. And as important as Rydia might be, she was still a little girl so she didn't get a voice on the planning committee even if she was willing to give her input.

All too soon the plains transitioned into foothills, the terrain growing more rocky and it becoming more difficult for the air car to move along, even with the advantage of being able to float. They moved into an incline, grass vanishing for harsh rocks and rising slopes. Until at last they reached a point where Edward stopped the vehicle.

"Sorry, but this as far as we're going to get without being on foot," he said as he turned to face Kain, patting the dashboard. The gesture earned a look from the dragoon, and Edward quickly plead his innocence. "It's more useful on flat terrain than a rocky slope. Once we get past the foothills, we'd move just as fast walking, and wouldn't have to worry as much about falling off."

"Alright," Kain agreed, leaning back to wake Rydia so they could get going, but found the summoner to already be awake and picking up stuff to carry.

"Let's go," she said succinctly as she exited the air car, Edward doing the same, leaving Kain to resist sighing aloud before he picked up his own gear and joined them.

Kain gave a look back to the abandoned aircar as the two proceeded up the trail. "Should we just leave this thing here like this," he asked, gesturing behind himself as he faced them both.

Edward paused to see what he was talking about, and nodded, shifting the packs he wore about to a more comfortable position. "It's fine," he replied. "Marshal Patterson will send around someone to pick it up later."
"Alright." While he didn't totally believe that, Kain was willing to let the matter lie. In the end it wasn't his aircar after all, and so he followed after them.

Up they ascended along a blazed and carved path, the air starting to grow thinner as the temperature dipped, white flecks of snow starting to present themselves and contrasting to the growing redness of bare skin. Kain, clad in a suit of armor, was fine for the most part except for his extremities, but he knew his companions would suffer more. They would have to be careful as they went on.

But there were more pressing concerns at the moment, such as the environmental hazards that came with this elevation. "Whoa," Edward exclaimed as a wrong step caused his foot to slip out from under him sending him flailing to the ground.

"Are you okay," Rydia asked as she moved to help the fallen Prince back to his feet.

"I'm fine," Edward replied, brushing himself off as he got back to his feet and looked around the area. What he saw would explain his tumble very well a she took in the sunlight unusually glittering on the ground. "Look, this part of the path is covered in ice."

Kain came to a halt by the other two as he surveyed the path ahead. "I would not walk on that," he replied, given that he didn't want to risk a tumble here, and he turned his mind to salvaging this situation. They couldn't go around without adding a lot of time to the trip, so they would have to come up without another option.

Fortunately one presented itself quite rapidly and he looked down to the third member of their party. "Hey Rydia, could you try and use Fire to melt the ice?"

At the mention of the word 'Fire', Rydia flinched, taking on a scarily neutral expression. "I can't," she replied sullenly, arms clutched to her chest. "Don't wanna."

Kain had to catch himself from asking why not, since he knew fairly well her reasoning, and he couldn't fault her for that. Still, this was important. "Please, can you try? We need to get past here, or we may not get to Fabul in time."

He watched with incipient hope as Rydia considered his request, only to have it dashed as she shook her head, a short twist that brooded no argument. "Nope."

Kain looked over to Edward for assistance here, seeing as the Prince was the girl's new favorite, but Edward could only shrug in resignation, and Kain had to hold in a sigh, an action he seemed to be doing a lot these recent days. As if he needed another reminder that he wasn't good at really convincing people like Rosa was. But she wasn't here, so he'd just have to find an alternative, doing another scan of the landscape and path ahead.

"Alright," he said at last as he settled on an option, and stepped up to Edward. "I'm going to jump you across the ice to clear ground. I suggest you hold on tight."

Edward looked more than a bit nervous as Kain took a hold of his arm, but the Prince decided to put his trust in the dragoon. "Okay."

Permission given, Kain acted, taking a few steps back for a bit of a run up before he shot forward and sprang into the air, bodily carrying Edward with in the arc. The extra weight of an entire other person and their gear didn't help his height, but he could tell instinctively that it would be more than enough for what he wanted to do while the Prince hung on for dear life, up until his feet hit the ground.

It was easy enough to repeat the process for Rydia, who watched the short trip the entire time and even had a ghost of a smile on her face as they got a birds eye view of Damcya before they landed.

All three on the other side of the large ice patch, Kain took a moment to recover, whilst hoping that they wouldn't have to repeat that experience. This trip would get very time consuming otherwise, and he didn't want to have to keep doing this. "Alright, lets get going," he said as he picked up his lance. "The Red Wings aren't going to just wait for us."

Those words of encouragement in their minds, the trio resumed walking across the mountain. It was a long way to Fabul after all.
 

Azecreth

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Chapter 7

The mountaintop swarmed with bombs, a veritable horde behind which sat one that was slightly larger than normal. They hopped about, spitting out some garbled language as they swarmed the trio of defenders that had suddenly found themselves thrust into this storm unawares.

"Where did all these Bombs even come from," Edward asked as he strummed his harp, the invisible projectile type attack slamming into an attacking foe and sending it flying back.

"How am I supposed to know," Kain asked as he swept his lance in a wide circle, batting Bombs away. They were formed into a triangle, Kain in front and protecting while Edward and Rydia made up the rear. So Kain was busy trying to keep Bombs away while the other two rained attacks on the enemies.

Muttering under her breath, Rydia threw a hand forward and shards of ice shot out with a cry of "Blizzard!" Some missed, others hit, and she went right back to incanting as if her life depended on it, which it did. She was throwing out spells left and right, not just because she wanted to live, but because of her anger at these foes and what they had done.

It'd been a difficult journey up to this point, but they'd managed, camping near the peak before they moved on. It was crossing the top of Mount Hobs that they were ambushed by this pack of Bombs, who had swarmed them from nowhere, and they'd suddenly found themselves having to fight for their lives.

Leaping forward, Kain's lance flashed as he speared a Bomb, the creature dying with a shriek before Kain leapt back and resumed his defensive position. Edward let out another strum of music, smacking yet another Bomb, as they cut their way through and towards the larger Bomb in the rear. They had to get around to the other side of the peak, and that thing was in the way. As well, it seemed to be leading them, so they could make an educated guess.

Still, Kain was only one man, and though he fought his hardest as they advanced, he couldn't block every attack.. This was emphasized as a chattering Bomb rushed in, pulsing a virulent red. The dragoon reacted in an instant to dispatch it, but he was too late as the Bomb reached them and reached a climax of intensity.
As his lance sped in the Bomb detonated, consuming itself in an explosion of significant size. None of them were caught in it, but they were pelted with sharp fragments of rocks that cut skin and drew blood, in addition to disorientating them.

"Here," Rydia called before throwing her hand to the sky. "Cure!" The trio were surrounded in a glow of warm life, green sparks landing on and healing their wounds. It took all but a few moments, but Kain still noted that Rydia seemed to be getting tired.

Edward nodded gratefully before going back to his music. Strumming his harp, he began to sing, a slow lullaby filling the open air that sought to lure some of their foes to sleep. While still engrossed in fighting, Rydia did hear it and wish that she could listen to him without distractions. Maybe it could banish the dreams she had had last night.

Kain's lance sparkled in the sunlight as he struck, cutting a way forward with swift prowess. Rydia had a knife to defend herself, though she wasn't too skilled in it's use, and Edward had his harp. The dragoon's armor was scuffed and a dirty blue, the man inside bruised and a bit battered, but not too bad otherwise. His companions weren't much better off, though he tried to protect them.

At last they reached the leader Bomb, Edward covering their rear as best he could while Kain faced down the primary foe. "Rydia, hit it," he said, grip tightening on his lance.

Rydia nodded sharply with a frown before pointing a finger at the Bomb. "Thunder!" Nothing happened for a second, then a bolt of lightning fell from the sky with a crash, directly striking the Bomb, which cried in pain.
Immediately following on that, Kain leapt in and struck, dancing around the Bomb to land strike after strike in rapid succession.

Dodging an attack, Kain landed out of it's reach as he took in a deep breath, gaze calculating. This was no ordinary Bomb after all. It had taken more hits than a normal Bomb, and he had to wonder how much more it could take.

At this point though he was fighting alone. Rydia had joined Edward, and they were doing a good job in handling the other Bombs. He didn't mind too much though, he could handle this himself. And so he went back to fighting.

That was, until a cry came from behind on the heels of an explosion, and he did a jump before looking to see Edward collapsed, smoking and singed. "Edward," Rydia exclaimed, rushing over to see if he was okay.

"Uff. I'm...alright," Edward grunted, letting out a hacking cough as he struggled to rise.

Assuaged by his statement, Rydia turned and faced the chattering Bombs, a storm in her eyes. "You hurt my friend," she spat at them. Fists clenched tightly, her hair whipped about almost of it's own accord and in defiance of the wind as her voice took on a double tone. "Titan, I summon you forth to strike down my enemies and bring my vengeance. Heed my call now!"

Her eyes flared an unearthly white before a flash engulfed the peak of the mountain, fading away to reveal a brown giant in the middle of the battlefield. The sight struck a cord of unease in Kain, but that was probably because of what had happened the last time. The giant blocked out the sun, a large shadow falling across everything as the Bombs retreated in fear.

Giving them a last look, Rydia turned her gaze to the familiar creature. "Titan, crush them." With a rumble, Titan attacked, foot slamming down with incredible force. The ground shook, cracked, rips opening up in the ground as it heaved unevenly.

Bombs died in droves, thrown into the chasms where they were crushed by heaving ground, launched into the sky off cliffs, to freefall before they came crashing down, or smashed by tossed rock. Witness to all of that, the three went unharmed, and Kain gave Edward a potion on his wounds.

At last the storm subsided, and Rydia smiled as she looked up to the lumbering giant. "Thank you," she called happily, satisfied with the results.

Titan shifted to face her and nodded, crouching at the same time and extending his hand. Still smiling, Rydia reached up to shake a large finger, watching as Titan vanished into thin air, back to wherever summons came from.

Before Kain could comment, he was distracted by another display. That was the large Bomb he had been attacking, and the Titan attack that had apparently triggered something. It shuddered, bulged, skin swelling and rippling until it became a large, puffy, red...thing, the Bomb's second form, as it were.

"Oh great," Kain grumbled as he faced down the now mutated Bomb. Could this day get any better?
Edward joined him then, clutching his harp nervously as he looked at the rejuvenated foe. "What's that?"

"A Mother Bomb," Kain explained smoothly. "It makes more Bombs...somehow. Still doesn't explain what it's doing on this mountain peak though." As far as he was aware, Bombs dwelt primarily in caves, so why would there be one here of all places? Even on a travel route to boot.

Rydia gave it a cold, cursory look before turning to Edward, and thus Kain. "It's in our way right? So I guess we don't have a choice," she said, as if that factored at all into her decision.

"Yeah," Kain agreed as he hefted his weapon. "Let's do this." With that he moved in, lance twirling as he leapt about and at the Mother Bomb.

Meanwhile, Edward began to sing once more, strumming a a tune on his harp as he buffeted their foe with magical based attacks. A magical harp came in use like that, since otherwise it would just have been normal music as opposed to something useful.

As for Rydia, she threw ice shards and lightning bolts with reckless abandon, taking out all her anger and trauma on the Mother Bomb. These things had destroyed her home, and she would not let any escape her wrath if she could help it.

The trio of attacks slammed into the Mother Bomb again and again, tearing away at it as it fought back,swinging pudgy limbs at the fighters closest to it. As he was struck a glancing blow, Kain would say that they hurt, but it was nothing compared to some previous fights he'd been in.

At last Rydia's onslaught of magic came to a halt, mana exhausted, and she clutched her knife in front of her as she pulled out an ether, quickly drinking it so she could get back into the fight. She was determined to at least do that much.

For all the long range assistance though, Kain was the sole melee fighter here, stabbing and gouging, keeping on the move as he forced the creature to respond to him. Above, the sides, the rear, Kain bit with his lance and then sprang away, driving the creature mad with anger and pain.

But in the end it's anger didn't matter as a last volley finished it off, the dragoon spearing the Mother Bomb through where it's heart should have been if it was a human before he leapt back to stand by Edward and Rydia. The monster roared, thrashed about, and then collapsed into a large red mass while the trio watched.

Deciding the fight was over, silence reigned on the battlefield for a few moments before a groan issued forth. The source of that, Rydia, swayed on her feet before tumbling, only saved by Edward's quick reaction as he caught her. Eyes fluttered shut, and the bard carefully held her as he looked up at Kain.

"She's just asleep," he said, as if the obvious needed to be stated.

Kain nodded in confirmation as as he looked around the torn up landscape. "Between all those spells and summoning Titan, as well as the traveling, she probably burned through all her energy. We should count ourselves lucky she didn't accidentally bring the mountain down."

Edward was about to give a response to that when he heard a strange sound and paused. Looking over to where it had come from, he could see the corpse of the Mother Bomb shifting and growling. A chill ran down his spine just before the corpse tore itself apart, revealing a bunch of angry Bombs.

Kain grimaced at the sight, the grip on his lance tightening as he looked between the renewed opposition and his companions. "Much as I'd like to this out, I think we should get out of here while they're still confused," he said to the Prince. Now, if Rydia were awake he'd try, but it was better to not take chances.

"Alright," Edward agreed, seeing the sense in avoiding need less conflict. He rose, carrying Rydia bridal style, and nodded to Kain as he faced the chattering horde.

Ready as well, Kain judged distances, speeds, times, before speaking to Edward without looking at him. "On three then." A brief pause of anticipation, and he gave the signal. "Three!"

The two burst into motion, Edward holding Rydia as he sprinted for the path that would take them down to Fabul's side of the mountain. Kain covered him, lance flashing as he kept the monsters away from his two companions. Not easy, but he kept them at a wide berth as his weapon swung horizontally, tip cutting through the air.

Still, they all made it safely to the downward path and descended with the Bombs on their tail. It was here, on a small winding path, that Kain turned and fought now, the lack of maneuverability giving the Bombs little choice but to charge him in an ordered fashion. Edward stopped in his flight to turn and watch as Kain fought, and he noted something odd. Rather than his regular strategy, the Dragoon was playing aloof, only striking a few times before he jumped back and repeated the process.

His idea was explosively explained as the Bomb he was fighting Self Destructed, blasting a hole into the trail and rendering it nearly impassible. After looking at the Bombs stuck on the other side, Kain turned and walked up to Edward. "Come on, let's go set up a camp," he said casually.

Glancing down to the girl he held in his arms, Edward was quick to agree with the suggestion. "Sounds like a good idea." It was a bit of a strain to hold Rydia up, especially while holding his harp at the same time, but he managed, somehow.

So together the two of them walked down the path, eventually setting up inside a cave. Not to stay for the night, but just to wait until Rydia recovered. Kain lit a fire for them, which Edward placed Rydia by and on a blanket. At that point Kain went off to make sure that no monsters bothered them, while Edward was left to watch over the summoner in their group.

He sat beside her, eating a bit from the food they had brought with as he looked over to Rydia, and the surroundings every once in a while. He certainly felt for the little girl, and how she'd apparently suffered so much. He didn't know the full story, but he could tell that even his own story paled in comparison to hers. Who was he to think he was suffering compared to that?

It was strange to be around her though, he would admit. And yet he couldn't say he objected to how she hung around him protectively. He'd never had any siblings, so in a way she was like a younger sister, in spite of not knowing her that long, a way to cushion the trauma they'd experienced. Perhaps that was why he let her do as much as she did, and was so understanding.

A sigh slipped loose as he reached down to brush green bangs. "Don't worry," he told her sleeping form. "We'll get through this somehow. The both of us."

His mind turned unbidden to past memories of life before the attack, and his eyes glazed over with moisture as he remembered people, places, and what had happened. "Anna," he muttered, grief and anger at his own impotence swelling up inside him.

Then Rydia groaned, head shifting as her eyes fluttered open, Her vision settled into focus as the first thing she saw was the cave ceiling and Edward.

"Hey, welcome back," the Prince said with a smile. "How are you feeling?"

"Tired," Rydia replied as she pushed herself up to a sitting position and looked about the area, confusion plain in her expression. "What happened?"

Keeping a careful eye on her in case she decided to pass out again, Edward provided an explanation. "You collapsed from using too much magic, we think. So we stopped here to wait for you to wake up. Kain is out guarding the entrance."

Rydia frowned, noting the absence of the dragoon, though she didn't seem too broken up about it. He probably shouldn't have expected a shift in her attitude this soon. "Didn't have to wait for me," she muttered as she looked down at her lap. "Gotta get to Fabul before Baron does."

Edward shook his head."It's fine. It wasn't that long anyway, and what would we do if we needed your help?"
"..." Her gaze didn't rise, leaving him to accept her noncommittal as a grudging approval. She made no move to otherwise do anything though, apparently content to just sit there.

There was one question that presented itself though, and he decided to ask. "So you don't like Bombs then?" It was an easy guess to make, given the amount of effort she had put into killing them.

At the mention of the monsters though, Rydia got a distant look in her eyes as she curled up, slightly rocking as she stared at nothing. "Don't like Bombs," she replied, almost mechanically.

Unnerved by that reaction, Edward found himself wondering if he had made a mistake. He didn't want to make her trauma worse after all. "What makes them worse than any other monsters,' he asked as a follow up.

His question wasn't answered by her though, but rather by a returning Kain. "It's because Bombs burned down her village and killed everyone in it. Hard to blame her for having a vendetta." The dragoon placed his bloody lance against the wall before sitting down on the side of the fire opposite where the two of them were.
Rydia, still not looking at Kain as she had thus far, abruptly rose while batting aside any weariness she felt. "Gotta go to the bathroom," she told them, and moved to depart the cave for some privacy.

"Alright. Be careful." The two watched her go before Edward looked back to Kain, hands resting on his knees. "I think it's about time I was given the full story there, if you don't mind," he said.

"Right," Kain agreed. He took a few moments to organize his thoughts before he began. "Me and Sir Cecil Harvey were sent by the King of Baron to slay the Mist Dragon and deliver a ring to the village of Mist, so Cecil could reclaim his honor. We did that. Only as it turned out, Rydia's mother was the summoner of the Mist Dragon, and when we killed it, we killed her at the same time, though we didn't know it then. And when we reached Mist, it turned out that the ring we were told to take there was actually as bunch of Bombs that began to attack everyone except for us."

He looked into the fire as he went on with the tale, the only concession to regret he gave. "Rydia was the only survivor we could find, and we had an argument about what to do with her, but eventually Cecil convinced me that we should let her live and turn against Baron." His gaze turned darker then. "Before we could do anything though, she summoned Titan and brought the mountain down. Me and Cecil got separated in the chaos. I found Rydia but couldn't find him, and went on to Kaipo. And that's essentially what happened."

As Kain fell silent Edward didn't move. He knew he shouldn't be comparing anything, but he felt worse for thinking that he had suffered when she had obviously gone through worse, especially for a little kid. But even then, knowing that, he still couldn't see past the lens of Anna.

Then he paused as something occurred to him, and his brow furrowed in thought. "Wait. Sir Cecil you said? Would he happen to be a Dark Knight with the Red Wings," he asked, recalling the attack as objectively as he possibly could.

"Yeah. Why do you ask," Kain replied, wondering what the Prince was getting at.

"I think he was there, during the attack," Edward explained, recalling the image of the Dark Knight behind Golbez. "He was serving under Golbez."

In spite of the seriousness of the situation, Kain couldn't help but grin when he heard that Cecil was apparently still alive. "Ha, I knew he couldn't get killed by something like a mountain." the news that he was back with Baron wasn't so good though. "How was he?"

Edward frowned as he thought back, blinking away tears as he struggled to recall what he had seen, the little details, but it was hard. Oh so hard. "I couldn't really tell with the armor," he said at last, hedging his bets in uncertain language. "But he didn't seem too happy with what was going on. And he...he tried to help me save Anna." A tremble entered his tone as he cursed his inadequate first aid skills. If only he'd known more, then he could have saved her.

Kain was silent as he considered that information, glad that Cecil was alright and that he hadn't been an active participant in what had happened at Damcya, if what Edward was saying was true. He had Rosa, so he probably wouldn't be too bad off. He just wondered if Cecil knew he was still alive, or about the soldiers in Kaipo. "Well, he's still alive. That's something," the dragoon concluded.

It was at that moment that Rydia chose to reappear, walking quickly into the cave and past them like a cold wind. She made her way behind the crackling fire and began to pick up the gear that had been placed there, a silent sign that she was ready to get moving once more, before more of the day passed them by.

It was a sentiment the other two could agree with at the moment, and Edward rose yo retrieve his gear as well, then stood by Rydia near the cave entrance. Kain took a bit longer, safely putting out the fire before picking up the rest of the stuff they had with them. Joining them, he did a quick check of the suns position in the sky to determine how far they could probably get, before nodding to the other two. "Come on then, let's get going."

So they departed, heading down the mountain. As one might expect, the descent was easier than the ascent had been, since they could work with gravity rather than against it. The air warmed with the drop in altitude, making things more bearable overall. Grass and trees began to reappear as snow and ice disappeared. The only issue was monsters, but there weren't that many, and certainly not in the size of the group they had fought before.

At last the mountain gave way to the foothills and they could all breath easier, and not simply because the air wasn't as thin. The hard part was now behind them, and now it was just a matter of time until they reached Fabul. They just had to hope they were in time.

As it so happened though, their first encounter with Fabul wasn't at Fabul itself. Instead, it happened as Kain crested one of the smaller ridges in their travel over the low hills near Mount Hobs. The dragoon pulled to a stop, a hand raised in a fist as he drew the attention of his two companions, who quickly joined him at his position.

It was a column of men, two across, some with headbands, quite a few without shirts, and the vast majority were bald as well. They were jogging in their general direction, and if Kain didn't know better, he would have sworn they were singing.

"Who's that," Rydia asked, curious as to who would try to climb Mount Hobs while half dressed.

"Warrior monks, from Fabul," Edward replied, relatively more knowledgeable in the subject since he had visited Fabul when he was younger. He focused on the monks before adding to that. "And I think that the one leading them might be Sir Yang."

Kain nodded in agreement, trusting the Prince. "We should probably go say hello. And warn them of what they might be getting into."

No one opposed that sentiment, and they moved on with their course altered to intersect with that of the monks. Edward shifted to the front of the formation, eager, and also aware that his main function here was to be their diplomat. As they neared, the moving of the monk's lips resolved itself into chanting, a hallmark of their monastic order and it's drive towards inner calm.

Coming into their view for the first time, Edward called out to them while raising his hands to indicate that he wasn't a threat. "Monks of Fabul! Is that Sir Yang I see?"

The monks came to a halt, quick to react as their attention turned to the person who had called out to them and was now standing before them. To the fore of the assembled monks stood a man, tall, muscular, one of the ones without a shirt, sporting a ponytail, red earrings, a mustache, and a red tattoo on his left shoulder. He wore a yellow sash around his waist, flat brown shoes, red pants tied at the ankles, and red bands on his wrists.

In the front, Yang folded his arms on his chest as he looked up to Edward. "Hello fellow traveler," he said with a calm, yet firm tone. "How do you know who I am? You will forgive me if I don't recognize you."

Edward could understand that, for the most part. It had been some time since he'd been to Fabul, or an official visit from Fabul to Damcya, and he'd grown some in that time, not to mention how he must have looked from fighting across the mountain, and rescue work after the attack in Damcya. "Prince Edward, of Damcya," he called back. "Can I approach?"

"Prince Edward?" Yang seemed surprised, but not hostile. "Yes, you may."

Edward nodded to behind him, and Kain as well as Rydia emerged into view, walking down the hill and up to Yang, who treated their appearance as calmly as he had anything before, and the other monks didn't seem too taken aback. "It's a pleasure to see you again, Sir Yang," Edward said with a slight bow."

Yang nodded as well, arms dropping to his sides. "Likewise. And who are these companions of yours?"

Edward looked over to Kain, who stood unintimidated by Yang, and Rydia, who did seem scared and was doing her best to hide behind Edward, despite knowing that Yang wasn't an enemy at the moment. "This is Sir Kain, a Dragoon of Baron, and Rydia, a Summoner from Mist," he explained.

An eyebrow rose, sole indication that Yang was, if nothing, impressed. "You're a long way from Baron, Damcya, or Mist," he pointed out. "And an unusual group to be traveling together." That was hardly unexpected, since Baron's renewed militarism had predated the attack on Mysidia.

Kain spoke up then, not quite anxious, but wanting to get to the point. "Yes we are," he agreed. "But we have a message that needs to be taken to Fabul, immediately. You should probably turn around and go back as well, Mount Hobs is swarming with monsters."

Yang didn't look too amused as he shifted to catch Kain's eye. "And what would this message be? I will not change my course of action without significant justification."

Edward sighed, and drew Yang's attention back to himself as he frowned sadly. "Damcya has fallen. It was a surprise attack by Baron. We need to get to Fabul and warn them or they could be next."

Yang cracked a frown, looking between the three of them for some sign that this was in jest, an excuse to let them by or turn them back, but he got nothing, just cold stares, and all the signs that they were telling the truth. And he could hear it in Edward's tone. Such a man, especially a Prince this far from home, wouldn't say such a thing in jest after all.

He was silent for a few moments, before he nodded and turned back to face the column of monks, who all looked back at him attentively. "We're returning to Fabul," he announced. "The Kingdom may come under attack soon, and we need to be ready to defend it at any moment. Now go."

"Yes Master Yang." As a body, the monks turned about and began to move back the way they had came from, back towards Fabul, where hopefully everything was still peaceful and quiet. They could hope for that much.

Yang started after them, but stopped to look back at the trio. "Come along then. I want to hear this story of yours, and it's not a quick trip back to Fabul. The sooner we start moving, the sooner we return."
Unable to disagree with that, Kain, Rydia, and Edward joined Yang as he, and the monks, set a quick pace as they began on the path to Fabul once more. They recounted their tale, with the occasional question from Yang, and at the end he seemed to believe them. They could only hope that when they met the King, he thought the same.
 

Azecreth

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And we are all caught up with the story. Fun times.


[HR][/HR]
Chapter 8

The trip from Mount Hobs to Fabul was uneventful, for the most part. The large mass of people was effective in scaring off most monsters, and those that weren't sent to flight were easily dispatched by the monks that Kain, Rydia, and Edward found themselves in the company of. And while the trip took time, it wasn't hard in terms of geography either.

The fair circumstances gave the trio the opportunity to relax a bit, to go along without the worry of monster attack and such. And after the fight on top of Mount Hobs, and everything they had dealt with previously, they certainly felt like they could use it.

Each of them had their own way to spend the time. Edward strummed his harp as he walked, song lyrics working themselves into existence in his head along with melancholic thoughts about lost love, and family.

Rydia had somehow managed to badger Yang into giving her a piggy back ride, and was now seated on the head monk's shoulders, bouncing up and down as she enjoyed the ride. "So, why are you all bald," she asked as her mount carried her.

"A representation of our devotion," Yang explained as he kept his gaze forward, though it would be easy to get the impression that he'd done this explanation before. "Hair is a sign of beauty. We cut it off to show our commitment to inner purity and peace, over external appearances."

Rydia frowned in thought before announcing her verdict. "That's dumb. And doesn't your head itch? And get cold in the winter?"

Yang nodded. "It does. But it is a small price to pay."

Meanwhile, while he was glad that his current travel companions seemed to be recovering, Kain couldn't help but focus on more serious matters. If they were right then the Red Wings would be coming to Fabul, and he had to somehow convince Fabul's king of this so they could prepare before it was too late.

Soon enough, walking brought Fabul into view, a sprawling city that was encapsulated within several rings of defensive walls. The ones nearer to the castle were older, with the defenses expanding outwards to accommodate the growing population. It wasn't a commonly employed method, due to the restraints it imposed, but Fabul managed to make it work for the most part.

"Wow, it's so big," Rydia commented from atop Yang's shoulders as she looked on the city. Baron it was not, but it was definitely bigger than Mist, and Kaipo, and Damcya. So the fact that she was impressed wasn't much of a surprise.

"That is home," Yang confirmed as they moved along, still seemingly unfazed by the burden he had to carry. "And it is where we are going."

"I could have told you that," the green haired summoner said in return, protesting the needless information as she folded her arms. Yang only smiled and kept walking, and Rydia let the matter, such as it was, drop as she watched the approaching walls of the city.

Edward stopped picking at his harp then to take a good look, while they were still distant. "It's bigger than the last time I was here," he noted.

"It is," the head monk confirmed with a nod. "Quite a bit so, I imagine. The King has been considering building another set of fortifications to accompany the latest expansion, but they aren't sure that it will be worth the cost."

Kain shrugged as he continued to bring up the rear. "Well, probably won't help against flying machines even if they could be done in time."

Yang kept remarkably calm in the face of the comment on the dragoon's part. "I do not think an imminent attack by Baron factored into his decision. Rest easy, we will be there soon."

"Most people don't," Kain noted. "Probably a failure of judgment on their part." Certainly Mysidia and Damcya had learned that lesson. Then again, it wasn't as if this was a sort of traditional habit of Barons, so perhaps he was a tad biased.

"Yeah," Rydia added with an emphatic nod. Now she was definitely biased, but he wasn't about to try and shut her up. (As if she'd listen to him without good reason anyway.)

"I see," Yang replied, offering no further judgment. They continued along, drawing nearer the city and soon they entered the outer layers of the capitol. It was busy, though not chaotic, with buildings under construction, people going about their business, and animals moving through the streets as well to add to the cacophony.

In spite of that though, the company of monks was able to move easily through the crowds, people going out of their way to clear a path for them. There were muttered and not so silent prayers, blessings, and well wishes accompanying that looked around in awe from her shouldertop perch.

"Wow, you didn't say you were famous," Rydia said to Yang, resisting the urge to mess with his ponytail at the same time.

Yang chuckled, blazing a trail for them as they entered and moved through a small marketplace. "I would hardly call myself famous," he said humbly in turn. "But Fabul's monks are well respected for the beliefs we hold, in addition to our lifestyles and fighting ability."

"Ahhhh." Rydia nodded in understanding before lighting up once more. "So, if you're so famous and all, I bet that means your house is really cool, isn't it."

"Not quite. But you'll see when we get there." Yang fell silent then, much to Rydia's annoyance, as they walked along, giving them plenty of opportunity to examine their surroundings.

Fabul was an interesting place, as sight could attest to, with a different style than any of the other kingdoms. The walls served as channels controlling the flow of people between the levels of the city while also regulating commerce, and serving as defense. Inside the city flourished, rising up to make up for the lack of space, and offering a lot to look at.

The architecture stood in contrast to Baron, Kain noted as he moved along. Most of the buildings had multiple floors, with sloped roofs, as opposed to a more sprawling layout. The buildings themselves were constructed with a mixture of stone and wood, and were host to a panoply of colors, whites, red, greens, browns, that accentuated the surroundings. It might not have been as well organized as Baton, to be sure, but it could not be debated that Fabul had a life of its own.

Still, there were some things that were the same. The markets, for example, were still full of merchants pushing their wares. The only difference was the goods being sold there. And they were just as busy, though that was likely an effect of the location rather than the culture.

As one might expect, Rydia was interested in those things, Edward somewhat as well, and Kain was dismissive, but fortunately they avoided buying anything at this point as they moved onwards. Soon enough the marketplace was left behind, but there would surely be more things to come.

Onwards and inwards they went, towards the older sections of Fabul. Those areas were quieter, with less bustle and noise, and more peaceful tranquility. The further in one ventured, the easier it would be to find the aristocrats, the rich and cultured, those of higher society. There were also monasteries, convents, parks, and the changes between the lower and upper levels were striking.

And in the center of all that, like the core of an onion, was Fabul Castle. It was a large structure, not quite like Baron, but impressive in its own right. Instead of dragoons and airships, and the space to hold those things, they housed warrior monks, the elite forces of the kingdom, and the infrastructure they needed. And it certainly held an advantageous position, which would make assaulting it hard.

Together they went through the front gates and into the main keep, past the guards that kept watch there. Out on the flag ground, Yang turned about to face his companions, whilst still carrying Rydia atop his shoulders, a strange sight that nonetheless did not diminish his authority.

"Thank you brothers," Yang told the group of intently listening men. "That will be all for today. Rest, recover, reflect. We may be called upon soon, and you should be ready if that time comes."

"By the Sisters light," the men replied en mass, bowing before the group dissipated, each to go about their daily business.

That done, Yang turned back to Edward and Kain, who had remained standing nearby, the Prince uncertain while the Dragoon was slightly impressed with the loyalty and control displayed. "Now then, let us go to see the King," Yang told them.

Kain nodded, and with no disagreement they moved on to their final destination. Rydia continued to ply Yang with questions about the place as they went along, head practically on a swivel at the new sights. "Hey, who're the Sisters? Are you guys all related or something?"

"No, we are not," Yang confirmed, quite easily being able to imagine the images that must have been running through the summoners head in that moment. At the same time they proceeded through decently furbished corridors as they headed towards the throne room.

Tapestries rested on the walls, pictures depicting people and great events in Fabuls history. There were inlaid torches which weren't lit at the moment, and pottery, as well as other decorations resting along the way, such as vases and flowers. People moved along the halls and past them as they went about their own business, the castle full of activity.

Edward spoke up then to provide further explanation for Rydia. "The Sisters are Soma and Mene, twin deities who reside within two moons. The Fabul monks, and many others, worship them for the effect they have on the world."

Rydia seemed confused by that, and said as much. "But if they're on the moons, how an they affect us? Are they really good mages?"

"The moons above are their physical forms," Yang explained, taking over from Edward. "Their representations in our world. Their true selves work on a plane beyond ours. And we act as we do so that we can be worthy of them and their blessing."

"Oh." Rydia chose to leave the theological questions behind then as she looked about and admired her surroundings. She didn't understand religion entirely anyway, and her mother had expressed a different viewpoint of the world. But that discussion could wait.

They ascended some stairs, passed many a room, and soon arrived at the antechamber to the throne room. It was at that point that Yang put Rydia down, who was not exactly pleased with being forced to walk once more.

"Aww," Rydia pouted, looking up at Yang with a none too happy visage.

"We're going to meet with a king," Kain pointed out to the disgruntled summoner, his own mood indifferent. "You could at least try and be on your best behavior. We have to leave a good impression after all."
"I know that," Rydia countered, her pout not lessening as her hands bunched up in expression of her annoyance.

That matter settled, they passed through the large doors of the entryway, and into the throne room itself. It was spacious, somewhat well decorated with red and yellow colors, and had rooms off to the side as well. There were small steps that brought elevation, like in Baron, but not as drastic nor noticeable. And the throne itself made it apparent who was in charge.

The King himself currently sat upon the throne, clad in royal garb of yellow and blue. He was older, bits of silver beginning to infringe upon his brown hair and beard, but at the same time he was still fit. Advisers stood nearby as the quartet entered and proceeded towards him, drawing his attention at the same time.
"Master Yang, welcome back," he began as the quartet came to a rest at a respectable distance. "We weren't expecting you for a few days yet." He then looked over the other members of the group, giving each a few seconds of inspection. "And who are these that you have brought with you?"

"Yes Your Highness," Yang replied with a bow. "I ran into this group of travelers along the way, and they told me a story that I thought you should hear immediately."

The King hummed, his interest piqued. "Really? I see." He turned his attention to the trio standing slightly apart, the brunt of his gaze upon them. "So what is this story you wish to tell me?"

Edward stepped forward then, hardly resplendent, but still commanding a presence as he bowed. "Hello King Jiao. It's been a long time since we met last."

"Indeed it has been, Prince Edward Von Muir. What brings you to my halls, and in such curious company?"

Edward took a moment to brace himself before beginning with his revelation. "Damcya has fallen. The Red Wings attacked us and their leader Golbez took the Fire Crystal from us. And they killed my parents, as well as my betrothed." His voice trembled, but he held strong. "That is why we're here."

Jiao shifted in his seat, straightening up all the more, and sympathy could be read easily in his expression. "My condolences then, Prince Edward. It is a tragic loss, and Fabul will help as much as we can. Your father was a good man, and I will repay that friendship." His expression hardened then, with a quick glance over at Kain. "And yet I can't help but notice that you travel with a Dragoon of Baron in bringing me this news. Why?"

Edward managed to stay diplomatic and calm when faced with the question, which was a perfectly reasonable one under the circumstances. "I do. But Sir Kain has renounced the rule of Baron, and has only been helpful to me since we first met."

"I see." It was hard to tell what the King was thinking, but it seemed that he was willing to agree with that. They had his initial support, and now they had to present the rest of their case.

Kain stepped forward then, blue armor catching the light, though it was obscured by dust and damage. His lance was slung, and he bowed. "You need to prepare for an attack," he said, skipping pleasant formalities. "First Mysidia, then Damcya, it should be obvious now that Baron wants the Crystals, and they're willing to use force to get them if they have to."

There wasn't exactly a favorable reaction to that. Then again, expecting otherwise would probably have been a bit much. "Do you have any proof of their intent," Jiao asked after a moment. "Fabul will be much harder to defeat than either Mysidia or Damcya, with all due respect to you and your Kingdom, Prince Edward."

"Thank you," Edward replied quietly. It was true for the most part after all. Fabul's warrior tradition was quite considerable, while the same could not be said for Mysidia or Damcya.

Rydia had been silent thus far, but at that she stepped forward with her fists clenched, her emotions on full display. "Please," she said. "You have to. Baron destroyed my home. They killed everyone they could." Tears built up in her eyes, an imminent waterworks display of sadness. "I don't want anyone else to die."

Faced with that, the King fell silent, mulling over what he had heard from the group. He gave it a moment of thought before looking over at the monk. "Master Yang, do you believe them?"

Yang gave a sharp nod, arms folded as he looked back at Jiao. "Yes, I believe that they are sincere."
That seemed to be a deciding factor for the King, and he rested on the throne as he made his decision. "Very well. We'll prepare for possible hostile action by Baron. Sir Kain, if you could assist us in coming up with strategies to counter the advantages given by the Red Wings, that would be most appreciated."

That was something that Kain wasn't really looking forward to, since he did support Baron as a country even if he didn't approve of its current leadership, but it wasn't as if he had a choice. And he could see the sense in providing some help. "Sure, I can do that," he agreed.

"Good." The King's attention returned to Yang then. "I shall leave you to prepare your monks."

"We will be ready," Yang confirmed in turn. Expecting him to disagree was doubtful, and given that those monks were the elite forces of Fabul it would be expected that they would be ready.

Before Jiao could address Edward, Rydia waved, seeking to draw attention to herself. "So what should I do? Need me to summon Titan for you?" She certainly seemed ready, if not eager, for that possibility.

That was naturally something the King was more hesitant in regards to, if only because she was a child. And still, she had apparently seen fighting, if her words and appearance were any indication. And the help of a summoner should not be easily dismissed.

That hesitancy managed itself as a pause, before Jiao provided an answer to that question. "Child, you should rest. You've had a long journey, and should recover your strength for the trials ahead. We do not know how long we have, so so take what time is available and enjoy yourself. Life passes too quickly to simply be wasted."

Rydia huffed, seeing through to the rejection of her assistance. "Fine," she grumbled. She wasn't happy, but she'd listen to him. For now.

The King seemed relieved that that matter had been settled with minimum hassle, and they could then return to the pressing matters at hand. The last to be addressed with the other royal, whom the King treated with all due respect. "Of course, I will not tell you what to do, Prince Edward. Act as you see fit."

It was a courtesy Edward under stood and was grateful for. But while he might want to go off to think and to play his music, he had a duty, and he would see it to the end. "I would like to stay," he replied. "I owe it to those lost, and perhaps what I experienced during the attack on Damcya will be of use in preventing the same thing from happening to Fabul."

"Very well then." Jiao had no objection to that, and with that settled upon, servants were sent off to gather the others that would need to attend at this conference. "Now then, Sir Kain, Prince Edward, please stay here. My commanders will be here shortly. The rest of you are dismissed."

At that Yang and Rydia departed, the former to fulfill his task while the latter left looking somewhat bitter, if the glare at her other two companions was anything to go by. That settled on, the remaining pair settled in to wait for the arrival of the King's military advisors and commanders. It was time to prepare.

[HR][/HR]
Rydia wore a frown as she wandered across the castle grounds, kicking at pebbles and stones in her path. It had been some time since she'd been sent off, and she was not happy. And justifiably so, in her opinion.

It was hardly her fault. Edward was busy with kingly stuff, Yang had vanished to do monk stuff, and they weren't letting her out of the castle. Some silly thing about her safety. But she was a summoner, so she could take care of herself. And she was bored, even more of a crime.

For the moment though, she was content to stay inside the castle. She hadn't seen an easy way to escape, so she instead bide her time. It wasn't like she hadn't done this sort of thing in Mist before. And these people weren't as attentive as her mother, so it wouldn't be hard when she put her mind to it.

She'd explored and seen some interesting things though. Art, animals, big rooms, small rooms, statues, and the like. She'd slid down banisters and found what interesting spots she could find. But she could only really scratch the surface of that, and it wasn't as fun by herself, especially when servants scolded her.

What she really wanted to do was to see what the King was doing to prepare for Barons imminent arrival. They knew it was coming, and she wanted to know what the plan was in turn. But they were treating her like a kid and keeping her away, in spite of everything she'd been through.

"Stupid Edward," she grumbled, scant attention given to the garden she was currently walking through. He understood how she felt, her desire, but he didn't want her to be around at a time like this? It was practically a betrayal of their bond.

Drawing on some mana, she whispered, and a small ice crystal appeared floating atop her index finger, manifestation of a simple spell she had learned from her mother long ago. It danced and twinkled in the light as she watched it, unaware of the small smile she got as cold ice reflected in her blue eyes. Soon, soon she'd get the chance to show Baron her pain, and make them pay.

One of those funny monks emerged from the side and snapped her out of her trance at the same time. Rydia ended the spell before she earned some criticism or comment. The way he hurried past her though made it seem like that wasn't coming though, and she was fine with that.

Moving along, curiosity took hold, prompting her to go see what was in the place that the monk had emerged from. Moving along stone paths, she skipped along down it, to discover what mysteries there might be there.
She quickly enough found herself in a courtyard. It was idyllic, with flowers laid out in simple arrangements, a really old looking tree with twisted branches and red leaves. Stone benches sat at opposite ends of the open area to go with the stone paths that ran in and out of the courtyard.

At the moment though, her attention was more on the person there, and she wandered over to where Yang sat, the man cross legged on the soft grass with his eyes closed. She came to a stop behind him, going through an examination of him with a confused expression. "What are you doing," she asked to announce her presence.

There was silence for a few moments before Yang responded, unmoving at the same time. "Meditating."
The confused look deepened as the green haired girl moved around in front of the monk, hands resting against her sides. "Sounds boring," she concluded, with all the tone of a set judgment. Which it was, in her opinion.

The follow up from the meditating monk was as constantly neutral as it had been moments before. "Not as much as you might think. Meditating helps me to find inner tranquility and balance, which helps to live a full life, as well as in combat." He paused before going on. "You should try it."

Rydia gave it a moment of consideration, since it wasn't as if she had anything else to do at the moment, and if it could help her fight better then it might be worth it. At the same time though, he was just sitting there, and that made her a tad leery of its actual effect.

At last though, she gave in. She could leave easily enough if she wanted to, so there was nothing lost. "Okay," she said then. "What do I do?" Without prompting, she sat down on the grass in front of Yang in anticipation of his instruction.

In turn, Yang waited until her movement had ceased before he began. "Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and try to calm your thoughts. Focus on your breathing, and find a place in your mind where you can be at peace. Let your worries and fears flow out, and let the world rejuvenate you."

With a nod, Rydia closed her eyes and tried to do just that. It didn't seem easy, in spite of appearances, so she decided to take it in steps. First was easy, deep breathes that she kept from verging on gulping down air. Next was quieting her thoughts, which was not quite as easy to do as one might guess. Leaving aside a naturally active mind, finding the calm Yang expressed was hard. Multiple times she seemed to reach that state, only to catch herself thinking of some random thing, and have to start over.

Still, she made the effort, and that was what counted. At least she hoped it did. It was hard to tell how long had passed since she had started but she had to imagine that it was a long time. That was at least what it felt like, and she found it spurring her desire for action, as well as her thoughts of the future.

"Haaaa." A sigh escaped the confines of her chest, and she succumbed to boredom. "Good luck with your inner peace stuff. I'm gonna go have some fun." She rose then, stretched her arms, and moved to leave. Now she was bound and determined to find a way to slip out of the castle so she could explore the city.
As she moved for the exit though, Yang spoke up. "Rydia, what is it you want?"

It was a question that brought the summoner to a stop as she looked over at the man asking. "Huh, what?"

"What do you want," Yang reiterated without moving. "Why are you on this journey? For someone so young, there is no need for you to be taking part in the task Prince Edward has given himself, no matter how capable you may be."

Rydia made no move to leave, but she didn't look at Yang either as she grimaced and was taken back to painful, still burning memories. "Because I have nowhere else to go. And because someone has to make sure that Baron can't hurt anyone else. No more innocent people."

Yang was silent, contemplative, and that stretched on. Rydia thought she had made a satisfying response, until he spoke once more. "Revenge is not the answer. It will not bring those you love back from the dead, nor satisfy you."

"Doesn't matter," Rydia spat. "I'm not gonna let them get away with it. Someone has to make them pay, and if I have to do it then I'll do it."

"Violence begets violence," Yang warned, his tone carrying the impression that he was teaching a young student. "You may succeed in your quest, but what then? All you will have is the knowledge of your success, and no more. Once you start down that road you cannot turn back, and you will not like where it ends."

Rydia resisted the urge to growl, her anger flaring at the tone he used and his words. "What do you know about it? I'm a summoner, I can handle myself."

"Perhaps you can," Yang ceded, much to the girl's happiness. That emotion didn't last long though with his following words. "But what of others? Even if your goal is merely to bring low the King of Baron, he will have men to fight for him, some of their own will, and enough that you cannot peacefully subdue them all. What will you tell their families, their wives, the children that are like you, that their fathers had to die because you lost your own loved ones?"

Her breath caught, eyes widening as blue caught the light, and she registered what the monk had said. That...she hadn't thought of that, much less considered it. And it was the reality of that which pierced her guilt, her anger, and made her wonder whether she was doing the right thing. Did she want to do what had been done to her to someone else? Could she, and still face Mama? Or would that make her as bad as the ones who had hurt her?

And then in a moment she shook her head, forcing those thoughts back down as her moral certainty reasserted itself. No, she'd come this far, she couldn't doubt herself now. They had struck first, and what they had done was a lot worse than what Yang was proposing. It wasn't the same. "It's their fault for picking the wrong side and then not getting out of my way," she pointed out, verging on petulant, but also confident in herself and her decision.

Yang withheld a sigh, breaking his posture as he looked over at the young girl. "Very well, though I doubt they will see it that way." He made no effort to change her mind, which was a good thing. It seemed doubtful that she would listen at this point anyway.

Still, he could make the effort to help her. And so he did. "If you ever wish to talk about what happened, I or one of the other monks would be more than willing to listen."

Rydia had no intention of doing that, at least at the moment, but she at least made the effort of seeming grateful. "Thanks. See you later then." With that she ran off, waving as she went and vanished from sight.
Yang watched her go with a taciturn, yet contemplative, look. She was holding back a lot, and that could not be healthy in the long run. And if her companions were unaware or unable to address it, then it would not save her from the destination she seemed bent on reaching.

His eyelids fluttered shut once more as he sent his thoughts and heart skyward, calling upon the favor and power of those beings above them all. "Soma, Mene, for her sake and the sake of those she will affect in the future, help her to find forgiveness, to heal the hurt in her soul, and to know the care you have for all mankind."

His words hung in the air, and he swore that he could hear a reply whispered on the wind. It brought a smile to the monk's face as he remained seated, and reflected. He had a feeling that things would be looking up soon, for all of them.

[HR][/HR]
"...So your best strategy is to dilute your forces within easy reach of the castle, and to rely upon archers and what other ranged weaponry you have to take down their airships."

As Kain finished relating what he thought their best option would be in this situation, he looked around the throne room at the assembled men in dress uniform, as well as armor. They were the commanders, the leaders of the army and the city guard, and at the other end of the group was Jiao, who listened carefully to what was being said. The presentation was helped by a map in their midst, which displayed the city, the location of their forces, and the surrounding environs.

This strategy session had been going on for some time. First, the various commanders had been told of the situation at hand, and had in turn reported the status of the forces under their command. Afterwards, Edward had related to them what had happened at Damcya, putting up a remarkably strong front as he tried to recall what he could under their near barrage of questions. Then Kain had gone on to describe what he knew of the Red Wings, their tactics, and what to expect. He was sure Cecil could have done a better job, but he did the best he could in his friends place.

It could hardly be called easy though. There was no military yet developed that could adequately deal with airships, which made countering them difficult to say the least. At the same time, while the various commanders were respectful, he could tell they didn't believe him. At least not totally.

That had been apparent when Edward spoke, and it was apparent now as one of the commanders, an old man with a jagged scar on his jaw, spoke up. "If we're unable to gather adequate force, it will be that much easier for Baron to defeat us. What do we do if they descend in strength, and we cannot rally quickly enough?"

Kain turned his attention to the man, Captain Xiu, if he recalled correctly. "Large gatherings only give their airships more targets to bomb. Baron is after the Wind Crystal, and that limits the amount of ground you need to cover as well as the forces needed for defense."

Edward nodded in agreement from off to the side, looking between those assembled here. "It will also limit the amount of civilian casualties if the fighting can be limited to the palace districts, rather than the entire city."

That was one thing they could agree upon at least, and Kain was well aware that they should be glad that they were being acknowledged, much less listened to, at all. He couldn't say that the same would have happened in Baron if the situations were reversed.

After going on for a bit longer, Jiao raised is hand, bringing the conversation to an end in a single motion. "Thank you Sir Kain, Prince Edward," he said to them. "We will take what you have said into consideration as we begin our preparations. I do not believe you need to spend any more time here."

"Alright then," Kain agreed, supposing it was true. He didn't have much more information to give. "We'll let you know if we think of anything else relevant that we may have forgotten."

At the same time, Edward rose and moved to stand beside the Dragoon, his attention on Jioa. "And thank you for your assistance to Damcya, your Majesty. It is definitely less of a burden on me and my people."

"Of course. It was the least I could do," the King replied with a dismissive wave. "Now then, I urge you to follow the lead of your companion, to rest and recover for the trials ahead. Feel free to ask for whatever you need, for as long as you stay here."

"We will." That said, Edward and Kain took their leave, departing the throne room and past the antechamber to the halls and castle beyond.

The two were silent as they went along, eventually ending up on an open balcony overlooking the main courtyard, giving them a decent view, and a light breeze to go with it. Kain took up a position leaning against the stone wall, while Edward rested against the balcony, looking out beyond.

"We did it," the Prince said at last, his voice a blur of conflicting emotions. "We really did it."

Kain, for his part, was quite a bit more skeptical of that assertion, though he did agree to some extent. "We did. Now we have to make sure that Baron can't take this Crystal, before going on to Troia."

Edward nodded, reminded that this was not the end, and that even if Fabul held, there was still Troia's Crystal to worry about. And that seemed to have some effect. "Can we do that," he asked, tone uncertain as his head fell. "After what happened to Damcya, and Mysidia, and Mist, do we really have a chance?"

Kain could tell what Edward was feeling, and he himself wasn't sure if they could actually succeed either. But he knew that he had to give the appearance of confidence to the young King, like he would have to new recruits before going into battle. If they gave up hope, then they were already lost.

"Yes we do," he replied with a nod from his position. "The Red Wings might be Baron's elite, but they're still human. And without surprise on their side, they become a lot less effective. If anyone can take them, it's Fabul."

Edward seemed to accept that as he looked back at Kain. The dragoon had presented some good points, and in return it was good to see that the Prince's fears and doubts were vanishing. Not gone entirely, but at least assuaged for the moment. Kain moved then, waling over to join the prince at the edge of the balcony itself, his hands resting on the white granite. "When the time comes, I think you should stay behind with Jiao," he said, switching the topic with no preamble.

Edward was quick to respond to that, and he managed to take Kain by surprise as well. "No. I'm not going to stay back and hide while everyone else fights for me." His eyes held iron, steel that had not been there before.

While taken aback, Kain was quick to recover, and he held back a sigh as he looked over at the Prince. "Tell me then, do you know how to use a blade? Do you have any training in combat or tactics, beyond playing that harp of yours?" Edward paused, unable to immediately answer, and Kain took that for the answer it was. "This isn't like fighting monsters, these are real people. They're smarter, trickier. So there's no shame in staying back , especially if you don't know how to fight. And you're too valuable to lose."

"True," Edward ceded. "But..."

"No buts," Kain interrupted. "I didn't save your life just so you could throw it away somewhere else, and I'm not letting you get killed because you feel guilty. The best thing you can do to avenge your family is to rally support against Baton. And you can't do that if you've got a sword sticking out of your gut."

Sure, he was being a bit harsh, but it was needed by all accounts. And it seemed to work, which Kain was glad for. Having to protect the Prince in a full on assault by Baron was not something he needed dividing his attention.

Edward was silent, mulling over what had been said, but at last he agreed. "Alright. You're right. On one condition though. I want you to teach me to fight other people, not just monsters. I have to at least be able to defend myself if I need to."

Now that was something Kain could agree to, and he grinned in approval of the determined look sent his way. "Sure thing, Your Highness, when we have the time. So long as you're willing to put up with the fact that I'm more a fan of long, pointy sticks rather than short, stabby swords."

Edward smiled back, none too put off by that. "That's fine. Any little bit helps." Ideally he'd never have to put that knowledge to use, but better to have it than not, right? Anna wanted him to survive, and that he would do. He would not let her, or his parents, down.

"Right." Kain reached over and patted Edward on the shoulder before turning about. He moved to leave, but stopped after a few steps, looking back over his shoulder. "Come on, let's go get you some armor. I don't want to have to tell the Regent that I let you get killed because I said it was okay to only wear formal clothes rather than protective gear in a situation like this."

There was no real chance of arguing with that, and Edward fell into step beside Kain as they went to go find an armory and fulfill that goal. The time to fight would come, soon, but when it did they would be ready.
 

Azecreth

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Chapter 9

"Wow," Rydia said with an awed tremble in her tone, eyes wide as her head swiveled about. She walked quickly with a spring in her step that did not seem as though it would fade any time soon. This was one of the most exciting things that she had done all day and she was not about to waste this opportunity, for whatever reason.

The focus of her attention was currently, and understandably, her surroundings. She'd been released from the confines of the castle keep at last and had been allowed to explore. Sure, it had taken a few days since their arrival in which she had been forced to wait for her traveling companions, but now she was free to roam, which had inevitably ended her up in one of Fabul's many street markets

It was such a radical new experience that she couldn't help it though. A million different colors held her vision, from fabrics to food to the people themselves. The air was distracting as well, mouth watering and savory aromas mixed with sweat, dirt, and the musk of animals. Which didn't even include that myriad of sounds, animals and carts, people moving or haggling, merchants calling for attention. It was a far cry from the market in Mist.

Edward walked behind the young girl at a more sedate pace, not in as much of a hurry but making sure that he kept up with her. His duty was as her chaperone, since she was still avoiding Kain and Yang was busy. Not that he minded too much, since he wanted to see how much the city had changed since his last visit.

He smiled as he watched Rydia, the poor girl unsure where she should even begin. There were plenty of options to pick from, and there was no lack of draws on her attention. "It's pretty big, isn't it," he noted as he joined her side, looking over the market.

"Yeah," the summoner agreed with an emphatic nod. "There's so many people and so much stuff." Her mind was awhirl with all the things she was being presented with. It was a good thing that Edward was the only one of them with money, or else it would be all gone in short order.

Edward glanced down at his companion as he let out a small laugh. "Yeah, and this is only one of their markets. I'm not even sure if it's the largest." He didn't think it was, but that might be wrong. It was too bad that Yang wasn't here to answer these sorts of questions. He would have been more suited to it than the Damcyan Prince was.

That seemed to impress Rydia even more, her excitement only swelling. "Whoa, really?" It didn't seem as though she was that hard to impress, which made it all that much easier for him. The last thing he needed was for her to get bored and run off.

"So, what do you want to do," he asked, leaving it up to her to decide what they should do. It would save him trouble, at least so he hoped.

Rydia looked around as well while speaking, coming up with various ideas. "We could look at the animals, or have a snack or we could try on clothes or get souvenirs." That was what she said before a groan tore free, accompanied by a pout. "I don't know."

"Hm..." Well, at least Edward knew how to entertain, though he had not done so recently, so he had a few ideas and guesses as to what they could do until they had to return to the castle. "I think it's a bit early for food. Why don't we go see what kinds of street performances we can find?"

"Sure!" Rydia agreed with a happy nod. True, it wasn't some sort of fair where that would be extremely prevalent, but there had to be a few performers about. And it would be fun to see people who did the same kind of stuff Edward did whenever they were around a campfire.

She hurried on ahead, leaving Edward to walk along after her. Her energy and happiness were infectious, and he would admit that that was part of the reason he was here. It kept him distracted and from thinking about other things, the more pressing matters on his mind. Like Anna.

Luckily for the both of them, street performers tended to be loud to compete with the general racket, and tended to draw crowds by necessity. That made locating one significantly easier even in a busy place like this. So Rydia quickly made her way over to the first one she found, pushing through the crowd to see who, and what, it was.

That was quickly revealed to be a juggler, clad in brown pants with no shirt, revealing time honed muscles in the process. His head was bald except for a ponytail, though he didn't seem to be one of the monks they had visited up in the castle. But he definitely knew what he was doing, that much was for sure.

Currently, the man was showing off for the crowd with flaming torches, with a steady and trained hand that belied years of practice. He was focused and attentive as he twirled them in the air, adding a flourish and an extra twist as time went on.

"Wow..." Rydia's awe at the sight was evident, her words said with wide eyes, and Edward couldn't help but smile, both at her reaction and at the show itself. He'd seen similar things in Damcya, but it was no less impressive this time than any of the others.

Sadly, it seemed that they had caught him at the tail end of his performance as he soon came to a stop. The torches were collected from their flights in both hands and brought to his mouth, followed by a gout of flames issuing forth into the air to the sound of impressed viewers. A successful conclusion to that then.

There was a round of applause as he bowed in appreciation of his recognition, and surprisingly he got no money for it. It was something that Edward would have expected from a street performance, but it didn't seem to be the case. Then again, he couldn't really recall if it had been similar the last time he had been here, so he let the matter go without comment.

His own applause fell off prematurely as Rydia stepped forward, the Prince left to wonder exactly what she was up to. And sadly, or not, he didn't have to wait long to find out as she spoke. "Boring."

That earned the attention of the juggler if nothing else did. Edward watched worriedly as the torches were extinguished before the juggle stepped over to the two of them, looming over the green haired girl. "What was that?"

Rydia herself didn't seem intimidated though, folding her arms as she met his gaze. "I've seen better. Besides, it can't be that hard with magic."

Edward would admit that he wasn't entirely sure what was going on, but the fact that the juggler was now grinning was probably a good thing, as if Rydia had walked right into some previously hidden trap that was now being sprung. Not that he knew what she had intended in the first place, so he kept quiet for now.

"But there is no magic," the bald man replied, presenting her with the now extinguished torches so she could inspect them. "See for yourself."

Rydia did just that, frowning as she inspected the torches from every angle while Edward watched on, until her curiosity was satisfied. At that point her companion expected her to back down, but instead he found that she was still adamant in her claim.

"That doesn't prove anything," she said defiantly. "The spell could have worn off since it's been used, or it was dispelled when you put the fire out." If anyone knew, Edward supposed that it would be her, with everything he'd seen her do.

Just as she hadn't, the juggler didn't back down either. "Well then young lady, how about I try something else instead," he said as he placed the torches down, this time picking up some short swords for his next act.

That said he was quick to begin, first one blade, then the next and the third joining each other in the air as steel twirled and spun about. It was dazzling to watch, at least for Edward anyway, since it was a display of acrobatic prowess that he couldn't replicate himself. And he had enough knowledge of the art itself to appreciate how hard it was.

It seemed to transfix Rydia in the process, cold metal reflected in her eyes with each rise and fall of a blade. A trick like this took a lot of skill and concentration, especially without a Protect spell to keep accidents from happening, and in the end even she fell prey to the show. And Edward began to get the suspicion that this eventuality was why she had stepped forward at that point in the first place. Well, she'd been successful if it was.

The thought brought an unbidden chuckle as the display went on. Perhaps Rydia would be a better performer than she knew. She at least knew how to play the part of a crowd plant already. Sadly they didn't have time to pursue it, but it might be something worth keeping in mind.

The swords sped up in their flight, grabbed and sent arcing in the sky as the juggler reacted to each in turn. It wasn't hard to imagine some tragic end to this, but one never came to pass. Indeed, the juggler appeared to be in control the entire time.

Soon he upped the stakes to a rising reaction from the crowd in turn. The swords went higher, in front and behind him as he danced on his feet, doing multiple flips before coming back down to be caught in his waiting hands as his body moved amidst the twirling steel.

At last though he seemed to bring the show to an end, catching each sword in turn until both his hands were full. The effort and physical toll were visible as sweat and deep breathes, but the man still stood tall as the crowd erupted into applause once more. His strength and coordination were nothing to be scoffed at, and everyone was impressed.

Just when the Prince thought it was over though, it turned out to not be. Which was hardly a problem for those watching. The swords went on the ground next to the torches except for one of them. This one he held aloft, tip poking into the sky. His head tilted back then as he flipped the blade in his hand, mouth opening wide just before he slid sharp steel inside, to shocks and audible gasps in response.

He maintained the weapon there for several seconds, barely moving or flinching in spite of the steel in his mouth, before removing it at last. The wet metal caught the light as he grinned in success, gesturing to the crowd.

"Wooow," Rydia said, unable to hide how amazed she had been by the performance. "That was so cool."

"I thought you'd like it," the juggle told her as he stepped over, flexing a bit just to show off. It was unnecessary, but Edward could enjoy the fact that he was at least giving his companion something to enjoy, before things became serious again.

He took a step forward himself then, bowing to the bald man. "Thank you," he said gratefully. "That was a very good show." And having some experience with street performance, he meant what he said.

The juggler gave a bow in return, hardly refusing the praise. "I'm glad to hear that. I do my best to entertain." Edward wasn't sure if the man knew who he was, but he also wasn't sure that it really made a difference in the end.

Rydia shot forward then, taking a hold of his hand as she looked up at him. "Hey, could you teach me to do that? Please?" Her eyes were wide and hopeful, bringing visions of possible futures unbidden to the Prince. And some of them he would admit he didn't like all that much, personal biases aside.

Fortunately for him the juggler seemed to get the same ideas, or just had general principles he wouldn't cross. This he showed as he patted Rydia on the head, much to her annoyance. "Sorry, maybe when you're older."

Rydia pouted, frowning as she stepped back. "I am," she countered, much to the amusement of the man she was speaking to. So she went for the second option quickly thereafter. "Fine. But next time I visit, you're going to teach me. And no excuses."

To be honest Edward wasn't sure what would have come from that question, but he was fortunate enough to have any worries banished as the juggler laughed aloud, conceding the issue in the face of such determination. "Alright then, next time. Just ask around for Saitama when you're ready."

That earned a fierce nod from Rydia, her face set in determination. "I will," she confirmed, as if she needed to do so. It might not be the wisest thing, but Edward figured that the situation meant he didn't have to worry about it for some time. Which was fine by him right now.

He turned to face the green haired girl, hands resting at his sides as Saitama moved off to give his attention to other members of the crowd, and to accept their gratitude. "I suppose we should get moving then," he said, gauging her opinion in anticipation of doing just that. She'd run off to do what she wanted anyway, and he would prefer not having to search for her.

"Yeah," she agreed emphatically before moving away, Edward following in her footsteps as best he could through the crowds and along the streets. What she had in mind this time he wasn't sure, whether it be shopping or more street performers, but he would keep up.

As it turned out the next place they went would be a store, an open air one covered by a cloth that kept back the suns rays with odds, ends, jewelry, and the like. He stood back and let Rydia browse, the green haired girl moving eager through the stand as she examined various items, seeking something in particular. It wasn't too difficult to figure that out after a few moments of watching.

At least they didn't have to worry about money since they had gotten quite a bit over the course of their trip, selling the random junk they had accrued in fights and on the goodwill of the king of Fabul. That meant they wouldn't have to worry about what they might want to buy, which was one less weight on Edward's shoulders.

Giving it a moment of thought he soon moved to join her, figuring that he might find something else that he would like to buy. It was unlikely but it was hardly unbelievable, so he'd give it a shot. There would at least be no harm in getting a closer look.

He began to browse then, moving between staggered rows with boxes and items laid out on display, prices nearby so that one could check on the spot and determine how much it was. He picked up a few things to get a better appraisal of them, but otherwise he was relatively hands off. As opposed to Rydia, who was much more involved with her possible purchases.

While looking though, he felt his heart stirring, a slight smile making it's way to his lips as old memories flowed back in the course of his exploration as he lighted upon a necklace that seemed very familiar for a brief moment. He and Anna had done things like this, when she wasn't busy running errands for Tellah and he hadn't been busy playing. Even when they didn't buy anything, they still took pleasure in each other's company, and neither of them needed more than that.

Tears were fought back as he dropped the necklace he had been holding, wiping at the corners of his eyes before Rydia noticed anything was amiss. He still felt the desire to mourn, but he had to be strong. Anna would want him to, especially in a situation like this when he should be enjoying himself. And potentially disappointing her wasn't something to even consider.

By the same token, he noticed that Rydia seemed to be doing her best to keep away from a particular rack of clothes, which had dresses hung on it. It wasn't hard to guess that it had some meaning to her, most likely negative, and it was not a further leap to assume that it had to do with her mother or other family member. And yet Edward couldn't ask about it, unwilling or unable to work up the will to do so.

He continued on through the laid out items until Rydia came up to him, clutching a brooch in her hands. "Is that what you want," Edward asked, even if it was fairly obvious that it was. Better safe than sorry.

Rydia nodded with all the determination it seemed that she could muster. "Yes," she replied, in a tone that indicated she would not be swayed in her decision if he had even wanted to bother trying.

Edward didn't though, and instead smiled as he stepped back from the display he had been looking at. "Alright then. Let's go buy it." He hadn't found anything for himself and didn't feel bad about moving on at this point. With that said he led her to the front of the tent, where Rydia presented the amber brooch to the man working there.

"That will be fifteen Gil," the cashier told them, and Edward dug into his pocket before passing over the named amount. It wasn't too bad for a decoration like that, and the look on her face said that it was worth it. Purchase made, they moved on off into other parts of the market.

Walking, Edward glanced down at Rydia, who was clutching her newfound treasure protectively. "Do you want some help putting that on," he offered, even if Anna would have been better at that sort of thing than him.

Surprisingly, she shook her head in refusal. "No thanks," she replied. "I can do it myself." Well, that was interesting he supposed, but he wasn't going to argue. It was her decision when it came down to it.

He was silent for a moment longer before sighing aloud, glancing towards the sky. "Should we head back then? It is getting late." He didn't mind staying out longer, but with what was coming it wouldn't hurt to be prepared and rested up. They all deserved it.

If Rydia thought the same though she didn't show it, instead shaking her head fervently as she looked up at him. "Nope," she said, confirming it. Well, he supposed that she couldn't be blamed for boundless enthusiasm. She was a kid after all.

"Alright then," he ceded without argument, and continued to follow after her. They'd only made it a few steps though before bells began to ring, not ones nearby, but loud ones that seemed to only multiply as the sound grew. It was loud, a slow gonging that didn't seem to be stopping any time soon.

Rydia looked about quickly as she picked up on the noise as well, as determined as he was to figure it out. "What's that," she asked curiously, and Edward was glad to see that she wasn't panicking. Then again, with everything that had happened it was unlikely she would anyway.

The Prince looked around as the people in the market began moving merchants packing up and people rushing to get inside, or at least to clear the main thoroughfares. He was about to voice his confusion when he noticed people in these same crowds pointing into the sky, drawing his gaze there as well.

He quickly made the connection and turned to face Rydia, heading almost immediately back towards the castle. "It's Baron," he explained, not needing to say more than that as Rydia joined him at a run, the two of the weaving their way through the scrambling throngs of people trying to get to safety before the incoming attack.

Determination swelled as he ran, hurrying along. This time he would not fail, not again.
[HR][/HR]Kain hummed to himself as he sat atop one of the many balconies in Fabul Castle that overlooked the city below. His lance rested beside him, the only accompanying noise being the sound of that humming as well as the sound of stone against metal as he sharpened his weapon.

It was a necessary task, which should come as no surprise. His weapon was his life, especially in times like this, and he could not allow it to put his life in jeopardy through negligence. It had been beaten up enough during their trip here, and now that they had the time he wanted to use the opportunity for some basic maintenance.

Moments like this reminded him of the good old days, the times when his father had still been alive and could teach him in the ways of the dragoon. It had been him who had taught him to wield and care for a lance, to jump as high as he had, and doing this made him feel like he was a bit closer to his father, long gone as the man was.

He also got the chance to think, and to mentally prepare himself. They all knew what was coming, and while there was no sense of foreboding in the air yet it was only a matter of time. He had been in enough fights to know that much.

Foremost on his mind was Cecil, the dragoon stuck wondering if he would be a part of this upcoming assault. His friend had been involved in the attack on Damcya, but it might be different this time. He had no way of knowing what was going on in Baron proper, and perhaps those doubts that Cecil had expressed in Mist had finally spilled over into revolt or defection. One could only hope.

If not...he didn't want to have to fight his friend, but if it came down to it then he would. They had clashed before, sparring matches mostly, and those were a far cry from an actual fight even if they were furious. But he could hardly be blamed for that, when the both of them wanted to show off; for Rosa, to each other, and whomever might be watching.

There was no denying that this would be different though, should they end up on opposite sides of the battlefield. It might almost be cruel, with how much they had fought together as brothers, to be turned against each other in the end. Moreso because Cecil was the reason he was in this position in the first place.

But at the end of the day, he would do it. He had come too far to turn back, and if his friend didn't join him then he would have to fight to stop Baron here. And that was all there was to it at the end of the day.

His gaze was fixed on the city below, the people moving and going about their lives, a sight similar to that which he had seen in Baron from his perch there. It was strange, but from up high everyone looked the same no matte which kingdom they were from. It was a view and perspective that more people could do with, in his opinion.

"I expected you to be in the city." the voice was unexpected, but Kain did not show any surprise to it's presence. Instead, he finished up with the last stroke of his sharpening stone before glancing back over his shoulder to see the rapidly-becoming-familiar presence of Yang there.

Kain shrugged as Yang stepped up beside him, the bald man also looking over the city. "Later," he replied calmly as he flipped his lance to begin sharpening the other side of it. "I want to be ready when the Red Wings come." It was a near certainty after all.

And Yang accepted that, for which he was grateful. Which didn't stop the monk from commenting on it either. "You should enjoy the times ofpeace while they are still here," he pointed out, quite reasonably too. But Kain couldn't find it in himself to agree with that.

"I will," the dragoon answered once more, letting trained muscle motions take over with his maintenance. "Once I'm ready to fight." They had times of peace now, but he would not let bloodshed happen because he was not ready to fight and protect it when the time came.

If Yang did not approve he did not voice that, instead sitting down next to Kain as he looked out on the city of Fabul beneath. "You are a brave man," he said after some time, his gaze fixed ahead rather than looking over at the Dragoon. "Not many would stand against their kingdom and people. Especially with these odds and forces in play."

Kain grinned, holding back a chuckle as kept up with what he was doing. "Thanks. Though I will admit it wasn't entirely my idea." That would be Cecil, even if it had just been him voicing the feeling that Kain himself had been unwilling to voice first.

He guessed that that must have been unexpected, though the monk nonetheless did not express that. But Kain had expected as much when he said it, and he prepared himself for the natural following comment when it came. "So you are carrying on the wishes of another? I am impressed. That must take even more courage and determination."

"Not really," Kain replied with a shrug. "He's a good man beneath his exterior, even if he doesn't have my good looks. And if anyone was going to convince me to do this, it would be him." That was for sure, even if fighting that same person was also in the cards now.

That earned a look of concern, or confusion, the majority of which was hard to tell as it was quickly swept away from the monk's features. "I see. But is this truly what you want to do? Doing so merely out of obligation will not carry you the whole way. A task like this is not one that can be undertaken in half measures."

Kain had to hold back a surge of bitterness or anger at that, when realizing that it was only fair. It wasn't as if he could turn back now, was it? So why doubt his determination? But Yang probably didn't know better, when it came down to it. "Yes, I'm sure," he confirmed with a nod. "Someone had to stand up sooner or later, so it might as well have been me."

"Perhaps," Yang answered. "But no one made it be you. If you had the chance, would you go back to Baron and your comrades?"

Well, Kain didn't expect he would be getting the chance any time soon after fighting Baron's soldiers, but he would humor the monk nonetheless. "No, I suppose not," he replied with a shake of his head, even if he wasn't entirely sure about it. "What they're doing now, that isn't the Kingdom that I agreed to serve."

"I understand," Yang replied with a nod. At that point Yang dropped the matter, falling silent as he seemed to accept that answer. It earned no complaint from Kain, at least for now. He seemed calm, in spite of what he knew was coming. But then again, the monk had quite the ability to hide his emotions, as he had seen so far.

But this he couldn't allow to pass, and Kain felt that turnaround was only fair in this situation. Who knew, perhaps conversation would allow the time to pass by faster. "What about you? Ever think of doing anything besides being a monk? Then you wouldn't have a cold head in the winter."

His comment drew forth a laugh from the Fabulan, so he would count at least one part of this as a success. But there was the rest and he wasn't as fortunate there. "Very true," Yang conceded without argument. "But no, I could not see myself doing anything different. I am in the place the Sisters want me to be, and here I shall stay."

Kain would admit that he was slightly envious of the certainty of purpose that Yang expressed, that belief that everything would work out one way or another. It must be nice, but as things stood he would have carry on in his own way, to wherever it ended up. Somehow he didn't think he would be as lucky as the monk.

"Well, if you ever change your mind I can find a spot for you somewhere, " he noted aloud, though it wasn't exactly the truth. What sort of spot was he supposed to offer anyway, now that he was a traitor? But he had to keep himself from getting too down, so it was said anyways.

Yang nodded, leaving Kain to wonder whether he picked up on it. "I will keep that in mind," the monk confirmed, letting Kain in turn wonder if that too was a joke to meet his own. Typical he supposed, but then again it was just harmless fun. Probably.

The conversation seemed to subside at that point, neither talking though they took solace in each other's presence. With the battle ahead, the quiet said as much as anything they could say aloud. But eventually it came to an end, as all things had to eventually.

At first it was nothing, a speck on the horizon, but then it multiplied, and grew as whatever it was drew closer. Noticing it as he took a moment from maintaining his gear to relax, Kain frowned as he rose from his seat and stepped forward. He put his excellent eyesight to good use, with a hand lifted to counter the glare from the sun as he sought out his target of observation.

"What is it," Yang asked, responding to what the dragoon was doing. Kain held off on answering that though for at least a few moments, just so he could get a clearer picture of what it was. Still, he was fairly certain that it wasn't birds with their apparent size, and that left it as only two things. And considering how they looked to him, that reduced the options down to one...

Kain took a step back as he reached down for his lance. "The Red Wings," he said with a certain finality. "They're here." No more time to wait or to wonder. All they could do was hope to defeat whatever came. And as if recognizing that the bells of the city began to ring, sounding the alarm to the people of the approaching attackers.

Yang rose as well, giving one last look to the horizon and the city below, before turning to join Kain as the dragoon headed off into the castle, to meet up with the monks and join the defenses. The time to fight had come, and Baron would not find them lacking in their defense.
 

Azecreth

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Chapter 10

The clouds were wet, casting tendrils of white that stretched and grabbed at the hulls of the airships as they soared by. It was not, perhaps, enough to bring on active misery, but it provided no comfort either. Wind, the height, all those together conspired to make it a very unpleasant flight.

Then again, comfort was at a premium here. On deck one was subjected to the elements and to nature. Below, it was cramped and tight. Men, armaments, supplies, all competed for space as a veritable army was moved, the full might of the Red Wings marshaled for this operation.

And for what they planned to do it would be sorely needed. Their current destination was Fabul, and it would not be as easy as attacking Damcya had been. They weren't pushovers, and to expect the element of surprise this long after the attack on Mysidia was foolish. That would make it even more difficult.

That was what Cecil thought to himself as he stood on the deck of the lead airship. It was cold, but that was balanced by the heat in his armor. The wind cut as well, but it served to distract him from the whispering in his head, the dark thoughts that always came at times like these. He needed a moment to himself.

Cecil had prepared as best he could. In isolated groups he had approached those members of the Red Wings that he knew were dissatisfied with the way things currently were. Now the plot was afoot, waiting on his signal to begin. He just had to find the proper time to launch it.

After all, he couldn't act hastily. This had to be done in a way that would not earn resistance from the rest of the men. If they fought back, his chance of success would diminish drastically. And it could not be assumed that they would all support him. Failure would be disastrous at best for all of those currently involved, including him.

With regards to the plan, there just remained one sticking point, and that was Golbez himself. The man was a good fighter, and he would not surrender easily. It was all too likely that Cecil would have to fight him. If that happened, it might galvanize men who would have otherwise been ambivalent about this to act against him. Understandably, that was a problem

Perhaps he was being overly cautious or paranoid. It was true that fortune favored the bold, and he could not afford to hold back when what he was considering was treason. Yet that uncertainty remained, like it was branded on his skin.

'I suppose my position can never be escaped,” he noted to himself morosely. Dark Knight, adopted son of the King, loyal soldier. It seemed that those things would always hold him in chains, no mater what he did. But in spite of those restraints, still he would try.

“Of course not.” The voice took him by surprise, but his armor hid it well as Cecil shifted to look at Golbez. Similarly, it was impossible to tell what the other Dark Knight was thinking, so he would have to act accordingly. “To do so would be to abandon your duty. And you would never do something like that, correct?”

“No,” Cecil replied, doing his best to maintain the facade he had. He could not be found out. Not when it wasn't the right time. He could be patient.

Golbez nodded, indicating his satisfaction. “Good.” Then there was a pause, as Cecil wondered if his superior was merely here to annoy him before the armored man went on. “Come. We are nearing Fabul and I will speak to the crew. It is something you should hear.”

“As you command,” Cecil replied, moving to follow after his leader as he wondered what this would be about. Going by the speaker though, it probably wouldn't be good. He could only hope that it didn't affect his plan that much, if at all.

They made their way up to the forecastle of the airship, and upon arriving Golbez stepped over to ring the bell that sat there, which was enchanted to cause similar noise on the bells placed about the rest of the ship. It was for orders and directions, because while it was possible to shout through tubes, it wasn't really feasible in mid flight, when the wind could steal one's voice.

With the sound of the summons the crew not running essential ship functions gathered on the deck. Their discomfort was obvious, but they stood there with well trained discipline. It was things like this that made the Red Wings the the elite of Baron's armed forces. Ranks and rows were formed amidst the obstacles on deck as they waited to be addressed.

Golbez would begin once he was sure that they were all there, apparently intent on what he had said about this being important. When they had he stepped forward, leaving Cecil to remain in place as the Dark Knight stood behind the commander.

“Soldiers of Baron,” he began. “We embark today on another mission given to us by the King. Fabul is a threat to Baron, to us. They are coordinating the resistance of the other Kingdoms that continue to defy us, and serve as a bastion and beacon of opposition to our rule. As well, they also hold one of the crystals. That is why we go there now.

But that is not the sole reason why we must take their crystal. Many have wondered why they are needed, why we are so determined to retrieve them, what they will give us besides prestige. Today, you shall be witness to their power.” At that he threw back his cloak, presenting two glowing crystals to the audience.

What were the crystals from Mysidia and Damcya doing here? It didn't made any sense, and speculation ran rampant. Fortunately Golbez was there to provide an answer. “I do not need to say that monster attacks have grown more brazen recently. But with all the crystals in our possession we can control them, drive them off, and secure the borders of Baron. This is what the mages have learned after their research.”

It was a bold claim, but if it was true then it would be a major event. If they could indeed control the monsters it would make trade and transit easier, and free up quite a bit of military force for things other than escort duty. And it would definitely help to save civilian lives in the process.

Cecil's brow furrowed in thought as he considered the implications of this. True, it would help the kingdom. But if they were here now rather than back in Baron, that meant he intended to use them. And with their current location in mind, that could only mean one thing....

Golbez finished that thought for him as he continued to hold the crystals aloft. “With these, we will ensure our victory over Fabul, by using the monsters themselves as our own loyal soldiers.”

No one complained or objected to that, even though there was confusion. Cecil could understand why, though he did not agree with it. The monsters would be a great distraction that they could use, at least in terms of keeping Fabul's military busy. Still, it would not affect his own plans except adding a determination to grab the two crystals in the process.

With that, the address was over. “Return to your posts,” Golbez ordered with a wave of his hand. “The battle will begin shortly.” With that dismissal the crew scattered to go back to what they had been doing and to prepare for what was to come.

“So, what is your plan,” Cecil asked as he stepped forward now. He still had to act his part, and it would be good to know anyways for his own plan.

Golbez returned the crystals to where he had produced them from, but did not yet move from where he was currently standing. “We will lead the monsters to the city walls, and let the two forces fight each other. As they do, we will move for the castle and the crystal there, with their military powerless to stop us.” It was a simple plan, but it was reasonable for the situation at hand and the resources they had to work with.

There was more to that which he needed to ask though. “And what will I be doing during this?” He had some idea as to what the answer would be, but he wanted to make sure. If he was right, it would make his plan that much easier.

“You will be with me, helping to retrieve the crystal from Fabul,” Golbez explained succinctly. That was good to hear, and it gave Cecil an idea. He merely had to wait until they were on the ground, then confront him. And whatever resulted, he could either defect or return to the Red Wings and head back to Baron in charge. Not a foolproof plan, but it was the best he had at the moment.

“I see,” he said once Golbez had finished, content. Now it was just getting there and launching the plan, practically trivial. It would be no difficulty at this point.

Golbez was quiet at that, seemingly accepting the inquiry for what it was on the surface. “If that is all, I should prepare,” Cecil finished, as way of removing himself from the presence of his superior officer.

“Good,” Golbez replied with a nod, indicating his approval. Cecil began to walk off, only to have his departure arrested as his fellow Dark Knight spoke once more. “Soon the end will come for all of this. Make sure you are ready.”

Cecil wasn't sure what he was talking about, but he knew that if it involved either Troia or Eblan he would not allow it to pass. With how things were now, he was afraid of what Baron wielding all the crystals would do.

“I will,” he confirmed before heading off. It was true after all. Whatever happened, he would be ready for it.

He left the cold windswept deck of the ship and moved down to the cramped and loud interior. Corridors were wooden walled, though with metal at spots to support the structure and provide necessary functions. But from where he started, it was a quick trip to his quarters, and he unlocked it and stepped inside upon arrival.

His quarters were still somewhat cramped even if they were larger than what the average crewman would be stuck with. It was some small comfort as he moved past the bunk to the desk there, letting his hand brush across letters, reports, and maps, before settling on what he had come to get.

That was a locket, and the shimmer of bronze contrasted greatly with his black armor. It was a gift from Rosa, a symbol of things that could not be because of their respective positions. And perhaps it was irrational, but he also hoped that it might bring him luck in what he was going to attempt.

“Though I know you approve, I'm sorry for putting you in danger,” he muttered to himself, as if Rosa were there with him. “I will be back for you, I promise.” If he succeeded, anyway. If he failed then it would be something of a moot point.

He took a moment to remove his helmet, hanging the locket on his neck before placing the helmet back on. It provided some comfort as it rested beneath his armor, and he took a moment to look at the other documents on his desk before heading off once more. He couldn't dawdle long when combat operations were about to begin.

He was almost at the stairs that led up to the deck when Biggs and Wedge approached from the opposite direction, both clad in leather armor and prepared to fight. “I assume you're ready to begin,” he said, half a question, half a comment as he came to a stop next to them.

“Yeah,” Biggs replied with a confident nod.

Wedge was less certain though. “Actually, we were wondering if the plan had changed, what with this whole crystal business We don't want a bunch of Zu's landing on the ships in the middle of it.”

“Your part of the plan is the same,” Cecil assured them, with something of a self deprecating slant to it. “It was my plan, it's only fair that I take most of the risk.” At least, that was what he had decided for himself.

Biggs shrugged as he glanced over at his companion. “I don't know, possibly getting shot out of the sky doesn't sound like that much fun to me.”

“I have faith in your abilities.” Cecil began to walk off, returned to the path to the deck above. “Wait for my signal. This battle may very well determine Baron's future,” he added as he departed.

The biting and buffeting cold returned as he stepped out from the shelter of the stairwell and on to the deck itself, to find the walled kingdom closer in view than it had been before. He took up a position near the forecastle, thinking, planning, and waiting as their destination drew inevitably closer.

His hand drifted to the pommel of his sword, only to jerk back at the sudden intensifying of that nagging sensation in the back of his skull. No, not now. He could not afford to succumb to the rage of a dark knight, not when he needed to be clearheaded.

At last the time arrived, as Golbez approached and gestured to Cecil before moving to the prow of the airship. Cecil took up his customary position behind him once more as the Captain produced the two crystals anew. “Now, we shall begin.”

Cecil watched with a careful eye as Golbez raised the crystals, letting the two hover in the air as they caught the light and as they glittered and slowly spun where they rested. It was strange, but even the dark knight could see that something was happening. “Creatures, obey me, heed my word,” Golbez intoned to the crystals, voice reverberating in the air.

Nothing happened at first, leaving Cecil to wonder whether it had worked at all. Then he felt it, the descending presence, earning a grunt as it felt like a heavy weight had settled on his shoulders. It was an oppressive force, and now it was centered on the crystals.

He struggled to stand, hands clenching as his breathing deepened. It wasn't enough to distract him from what was going on though. And there was plenty going on. Down below the ship the forest swayed and rustled, a multitude of bestial cries emerging as the monsters responded to that mysterious force and followed the airships.

Cecil winced as the whispers in his head redoubled, as if this mysterious force was amplifying them. He couldn't shrug it off, yet it also seemed that none of the crew were affected, just him. Which made it that much harder to tell what was happening.

He was not the only one taken by surprise, as yells of fear and surprise rang through the fleet. They were well deserved, as flights of Zus and other flying monsters, joined them in the skies, to their sides, and above and below them. Very terrifying even for the hardened warriors.

After they had gathered, Golbez gestured forward towards the city. “Go, attack.” The birds cawed and cried, and Cecil shuddered as he felt that strange presence ripple, as if it was forcing them forward. They obeyed then, winging forward and ahead of the fleet as they heeded the given word.

Golbez watched the monsters go before turning back to face the shocked crew, with the crystals still hovering in the air. “Do not fear,” he said darkly, forcing them back into line with his personality. “They will not harm us. Now, prepare for a bombing run on the city walls. We will blow them down and allow the monsters free rein in the city. Then we move for the castle.”

“You cannot be serious,” Cecil said then, more than a bit worried and angered by the turn of events. This, this was not how things were supposed to go. Or how he imagined it would, anyway.

That earned him Golbez's attention as the Captain directed his gaze towards his subordinate. “Is there a problem,” he rumbled, indicating that the wrong answer would not have good consequences for the Dark Knight. As if there had been any alternative to that.

But Cecil didn't care about that as he faced down his superior. “I have a problem with unleashing a horde of monsters upon defenseless civilians,” he replied. He would not stand by and allow another Mist to happen.

Golbez held motionless for a moment, as if considering that, before turning to face away from Cecil, showing his contempt for the Dark Knight. “It appears Sir Cecil has gone soft. Fabul is an enemy kingdom and city, and we will use all methods at our disposal to succeed and to preserve Baronian lives. Is that clear?”

“Yes,” Cecil replied tersely, though he did not give up. “I don't see what is wrong with merely keeping the defenders pinned on the walls. We aren't trying to take the city.” There had to be some other way, and he would find it.

Sadly, it seemed that the Captain was willing to go that far as well, and would not back down in front of the watching Red Wings. “It is your place to obey, not to question.” Those were fighting words, if nothing else.

“I don't question,” Cecil replied with a shake of his head. “I am giving you my opinion as the former Captain, and one more experienced in commanding airships. If you don't accept it then that is your business.”

That might not be what Golbez wanted to hear, but he held his calm for the moment. “I do not. You will still your tongue or suffer the consequences. No one shall ever interfere with the king's commands.” There was the gauntlet then, and the challenge, as mutters ran through the crowd.

And that left Cecil with a dilemma. He could fight right now and when his plot wasn't in place to launch, or he could go further, lure Golbez into a false sense of security by allowing the bombing to go forward with the devastation of Fabul. The whispers in his mind made their opinion known, sadly, but he tried to ignore them.

Then they were suddenly banished by the memory of what had happened in Mist. Maybe it was merely the last hurrah of his conscience, but it forced him back to a path of honor and principle once more. “Then I have no choice but to relieve you of command,” he said with a final resolve, drawing his sword.

“What?” Golbez was not the only one surprised by this, and Cecil let his gaze traverse the crowd as they reacted to his statement. But the Captain remained his main focus as Golbez drew his own sword, as he had expected he might.

“There was a time when Baron acted with honor, and principles,” the dark knight declared to those listening. “We did not attack others without cause and engage in senseless violence. And I will not allow you to stain the good name of the Red Wings by doing it again.”

His sword thrummed in his hands, earning a wince of pain at the resistance it gave to his current endeavor. It didn't want him to do this, but nonetheless he forced himself onwards. There was little choice, at least in his mind.

Across from him the dark aura intensified as Golbez began to tap into his own power. “Stand down Sir Cecil,” he commanded, voice ringing and cutting through the whipping air in the process.

“No,” he replied, shaking his head. “If you feel that your way is better, then prove it. I'm waiting.” If this was to be settled by the sword, then Golbez would find his blade ready to prove which was the stronger.

“Very well.” And that was all that was said before it began in earnest. The crewmen scrambled out of the way of the duel, creating a large circle around them even as the airships continued their advance.

Cecil grunted with the first clash as their blades met. He knew how good a swordsman the Captain was, and he would have to make this quick to avoid being overwhelmed. So he pushed the offensive, blade flashing in the air as the two fought.

Dark powers swelled and flowed back and forth between the two as swords met with blow after blow. For the moment Cecil kept up, a credit to his skills but he could feel the sheer force behind every hit. Now he knew how the King of Damcya must have felt.

And like that king, he began to falter. But it wasn't because of anything he had done. Instead it was that dark influence from before, which brought itself down upon his mind like a wall, his muscles freezing up and his teeth grinding as he tried to move. But he was unable to in any real extent.

He forced himself to move by sheer willpower, yet the coming blow could not be stopped, and his sword was sent spinning to the deck of the ship. His hope had been strong, his determination, yet here he was defeated in the end.

His eyes closed as he stood there, waiting for Golbez to strike him down for what he had done, but that end did not come. “Seize him and take him to his quarters,” he heard Golbez command, and his vision returned to see his fellow dark knight picking up his sword from the deck.

Two men stepped forward then, their armor in a contrast to his own as they moved to both sides of the dark knight. But he didn't look at them, keeping his gaze trained upon the Captain. As if it could make some sort of difference.

With second sword in hand, Golbez looked back to the former captain. “The King will decide your fate,” he explained. It was hard to disagree with that logic, even if a different outcome had been expected.

With that said Golbez walked away, indicating that this was over. “We are going to regret this,” Cecil said to no one in particular as he was led off. He could have fought, should have, but that same familiar sensation prevented him from doing so. No, he would need to figure out how to overcome this first before he resigned himself to his fate.

The crowd began to disperse so they could get back to their jobs as the trio went down the stairs to the interior of the ship. His movement in that area were hindered by the guards with him who did not make it easy to get around in the tight confines of the wood and metal corridors. Now it would have been easy to break free, and yet he still didn't try.

Arriving at his quarters, he stepped inside with his new guards, who did a quick search for weapons or anything else he might use to escape. Once they were done they stepped outside and closed the door, leaving him to wait and stew alone.

A sigh escaped before the dark knight sat down on his bunk, removing his helmet first and then his armored gauntlets. “Well then, that went well,” he said to himself in sarcastic annoyance. What he had been hoping for has most definitely not come to pass.

In the end, he was left to wonder just what it was that had caused his defeat. Undoubtedly it had been that dark influence he had felt, that crushing weight laid upon him. But had it been done by Golbez, or was it some other force acting against him? And was there any way for him to really know?

He worked his sword hand as he thought on it, frowning at the same time. No, there was no way to know, and he wasn't sure how to deal with that fact. His confidence had flagged somewhat in the wake of his failure, and he didn't know how to restore it.

Yet he couldn't give up, not with what was at stake. The locket was all the reminder that he needed that Rosa would also be made to suffer for his crimes once they returned to Baron. And that was something he could not allow.

For now there was no course of action available that mattered, so he was forced to let time pass by. He would have to look for the next opportunity, no matter how risky it was, to either seize the crystals or to take Golbez by surprise. Those were the only options he could see for winning this confrontation now.

He rested anxiously as time slipped by, moving between the bed and the desk as he recorded his thoughts and worked out possible plans. It didn't actually mean anything, but it was something to keep his mind preoccupied which made it worth it in the end. If the military had taught him anything, it was that it never hurt to be prepared.

Soon enough, he could hear the assault begin through the din of the engines and everything else around him. It was telling in the distinct shudder that ran through the ship of clamps releasing, the slight sway upwards as the weight of the bombs suddenly fell away and allowed the vessel to rise a bit easier.

Then the noise changed moving to heavy, rattling thuds from the fight that had to be taking place, with the shocks from the larger projectiles that slammed against the hull. To be honest it was only his experience that let him discern it in the first place. And in the end, the most noticeable movement was as the ship came to a stop, apparently at it's destination.

Cecil straightened in his seat as he glanced towards the ceiling and the deck above, just imagining the fight that must have gone on. How were the Red Wings doing, how had Fabul fared? Even though he had been locked in here, he still hoped for the well being of his men. After all, they had done nothing wrong.

Held in thought such as he was, Cecil was taken by surprise as he heard conversation right outside the door, before a short and brief scuffle seemed to break out. He rose up, stepping to the middle of his quarters as he waited to see what happened.

For a moment it was like that, before a smile broke out as the door swung open to reveal not the guards but rather Biggs and Wedge. “A pleasure captain,” Biggs said with a grin and a quick salute.

“Likewise,” Cecil agreed as he reached for his helmet and gauntlets. “I didn't expect to see the two of you here.” He might not be about to object to it, but he had assumed that they would stay uninvolved. It was good to see that he was wrong.

Wedge shrugged as he stood watch while the dark knight put his armor back on. “Golbez and most of the soldiers went down to the castle, so we decided we could take the risk,” he explained. They had some breathing room, but who knew how long it would last? Better to move quick then.

Once the helmet had gone back into place, Biggs presented his superior with a sword and a sheath to go with it, though it was a common iron blade rather than dark sword that had been taken by Golbez. Hardly a surprise, so Cecil would make do.

“So, what's the plan now,” Biggs inquired at that point, while Cecil finished with his preparations. “We're ready to help you get out of here whenever you want.”

The dark knight, now ready, took a step forward as he looked between the two of them, his visage hidden by black steel. “I will not flee,” he said with a determined certainty. “Someone must stop Golbez before he can take the crystals. And since I am responsible, I will do it.”

Biggs and Wedge shared a look before turning back to the former captain. “Are you sure? We saw what happened earlier.” Cecil was not surprised by that, and he would admit that he was still working on that particular problem. But he had to do this either way, to whatever end he might arrive at.

“I am,” he answered in a firm tone. “I still have to try, even if the chance of success is low.”

Silence descended for a few moments before Biggs stepped to the side. “Just making sure,” he confirmed with a grin. “After you, captain.”

Cecil nodded in agreement as the three of them headed out. First though, they moved the two unconscious guards, hiding them in a storage closet before anything else. With how they might as well be operating in hostile territory, the less help they gave to those aligned with Golbez the better.

With that done they moved quickly through the halls, dodging and slipping past what crew they could avoid along the way. It was lucky that the ship had been pretty much emptied except for essential crew, since it made their efforts easier. And with that advantage they made a beeline for the deck of the ship, and their escape.

Biggs looked around to make sure that no one was watching at the moment before leading the other two out onto the deck. On top, they then headed towards the side of the ship, where ropes waited that would take then down to the ground. They would have to be quick, with how exposed they were.

Coming to a stop, Wedge reached down and grabbed one of the ropes, passing it to Cecil in the process. “You go first. We'll be right behind you,” he told the dark knight before stepping back. They'd come this far, it wouldn't do to be caught now.

“Thank you,” Cecil replied with a nod, taking the rope and lowering himself off the ship with Biggs following close behind. He could hear the screams and the sound of panicked fighting, and he could see the red glow of fire in the distance. Shame rose as he averted his gaze, but it also made him that much more determined to succeed.

His feet landed on the stone floor, and he looked up to see the last member of their group descending to shouted alerts from above. The ruse was up, but they had made it out in one piece. Now they could go find Golbez.

Cecil drew his sword as he looked around, taking in the immediate area. It was obvious that the Red Wings had been through here, which he was grateful for in a way. It meant that he didn't have to worry about being shot or attacked on the descent, or now.

“Let's go,” he told them as he moved for the entrance that would take them inside, ready for any threat that might appear. Biggs and Wedge drew their own swords and followed after him, guarding his back. It was time to go, time to find Golbez and to settle this.

[HR][/HR]
Fabul had readied, prepared as best they could for what was to come. And when the attack came at last, they responded. A veritable hail of projectiles rose, with regular arrows bouncing off of the hulls of airships and striking down monsters, while the larger arrows shot by ballistae slammed home when they hit, burying themselves in wood, armor, and flesh. At which point chains began to pull, trying to drag the snagged ships down to the ground while monsters simply dropped.

The success of this was rendered irrelevant as the bombs fell, explosions sending soldiers scattering as gaping holes were torn in the wall. Holes that through which the gathered monsters could swarm, allowing the Red Wings to advance as they targeted the population.

In the sky, flying monsters screeched and swooped down on their chosen targets, either knocking people to the ground or picking them up and carrying them away. Otherwise they clashed with soldiers, descending like a horde upon the city everywhere and not constrained by the terrain. The sky was their domain, and they sowed chaos all around as intended.

The more mundane monsters advanced on the ground, spreading from the breaches to engulf the city like a horde. Mad cackles and howls rose as civilians fled and soldiers rushed to fight them, letting the sound of combat grow. Looting, destruction, and the streets ran with blood as the chaotic force was unleashed.

And then there were the Bombs, cackling and flying about from place to place, swelling, exploding, multiplying. And it was not long until fire began, lighting the city as it licked and clawed at buildings, spreading unchecked with everyone distracted. It was as much a hindrance as the fighting was.

The soldiers fought back as best they could, but they were being overwhelmed, and slowly they began to withdraw towards the center of the city. The civilians had to be protected, and the soldiers did their best, but it was either retreat or being overrun, so they chose the former to the latter as they withdrew from the walls.

War had come to Fabul, and the city burned.
 
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