Cecil strode towards the distant sounds of chaos, one fist clasped strongly around the grip of the Crystal Sword.
“Your Majesty, wait!”
I said, not now!
He ran a final check over the straps of his armor. It had been so long since he had last felt the weight of the plate mail upon his shoulders. Despite his efforts to keep it well oiled and polished, the joints still creaked in disuse.
”Your Majesty, I implore you!”
Shiva! I can’t take five steps out my front door without…
The Paladin finally stopped, turning on his heel to address the red-faced guard who was dogging his every step. “Commander?”
Caught somewhere between fear and relief, the man froze mid-stride. He looked as if he couldn’t decide whether to take a step forwards or back. “Your Majesty… please… return to the castle. Let my men handle this beast.”
Cecil did not even attempt to hide his displeasure. “Commander, do I look like one of your men?”
Face paling, the guard shook his head. “N-no… of course not, your Majesty…”
“Then do not order me around as if I were.” The Paladin turned curtly away.
“Sire, that was not my intent! It is simply my duty to see that you are protected!”
“And it is my duty to see that the people of Baron are protected.”
“We, too, work to carry out your will!” His tone had become near-pleading.
Cecil cast a sharp frown upon the other man. “I did not get to be king by hiding behind another man’s shield. Do you honestly think I cannot fight for myself?”
“N-no, Sire, it’s not that! It’s just….”
“Healer!” A sobbing shriek rose up from between two buildings down the street. “We need a Healer over here!”
The Paladin turned his head to catch a glimpse of two Baronian guards trudging through the dirt alongside the road. They both labored to pull a third guard along between them. The spectacle was so horrible that Cecil couldn’t stop himself from gaping.
The Elder’s fear was not exaggerated…
The man they were dragging had been neatly melted in two. It was only by means of a few internal organs that his lower half remained attached. As bad as the devastation was, there was no blood to speak of. It was as if each half of the body had been seared shut by some sort of unimaginable heat.
“Healer!!” one of the guards screeched, his eyes crazed with shock.
That wound is far beyond the skills of a White Mage.
The commander had grown quite pale, adverting his eyes with a choke. “We have no idea what we’re up against.”
Cecil shifted the weight of his armor one last time upon his shoulders. “That, Commander, is the story of my life.”
With face set in determination, the Paladin turned and strode out towards the town square. People were flailing every direction in attempt to get as far away from the danger as they could. It was a stampede.
At this rate, most of the fatalities are going to come from people being trampled to death! Why isn’t someone tending to the crowds out here?
It didn’t take very long before he found what he was looking for. A glimmer of midnight blue perched upon a distant rooftop. Holding his blade aloft, Cecil gathered the reflection of sunlight and flashed a signal across the avenue.
The blue became a blur. It skipped across the shingles, darting from house to house until it finally dropped down beside the king in the alley.
“What’s going on out there, Kain?” Cecil demanded quickly.
“You want me to answer that honestly?”
“We’re getting our asses kicked.”
“That’s what I thought.” Cecil gave a low murmur and sheathed his sword.
The Dragoon paused and ran an eye of approval over his friend. “What’s with the armor?”
“There’s no way I’m sitting this one out. Not after what I’ve heard.”
“Why? You have an idea of what the hell that thing is?”
“You mind sharing? I’m watching my men get chopped to pieces out there. And more than half the time, we can’t even see the damn thing coming.”
“That’s because it’s an Elemental. Water Elemental.”
“Never mind. Just call your men back.”
Cecil turned, his eyes growing hard. “You heard me. Call your men back. Get them out of the fight and back in the streets. We need to get the people of the town under control. They’re running each other over in panic.”
“What do you—“
“Route them all to the castle and bar the gates. I want every man, woman and child in the fortress immediately.”
The Paladin cut in. “Are you questioning my orders Kain?”
The Dragoon stiffened, eyes flashing hotly. “No, Your Majesty. Of course not.”
“Then get to it!”
Kain turned away, fists tightening on the shaft of his lance in resentment. With the nerve that only the Dragoon could posses, he shot a glance back over one shoulder at his friend. “Who’s gonna do it then?”
“Who’s gonna fight that monster? There’s not much good we can do holing ourselves up in a fortress if it’s only going to end up our tomb.”
Cecil slowly drew his blade. “You’re looking at him.”
“Alone? You can’t be serious!”
“It’s an Elemental beast, Kain. Your men are just wasting their lives fighting it. It takes more than a regular sword to so much as scratch something like this. So don’t argue. Just…” the young king paused, looking down at his feet, “Just see to it that the people are safe.”
The Dragoon’s eyes grew suddenly clear — so clear they almost seemed to be colorless. “Good luck, Cecil.”
Then with a nod of his head, Kain darted back towards the castle.
The streets were silent in the upper end of town. It was somehow more unnerving than the symphony of screams that had filled his ears only minutes before. Cecil could feel the pressing contrast against the inside of his skull as his fingers locked around the grip of the Crystal Blade.
Even the distant sound of the warning toll had died.
Cecil paused his advance at a crossroad, glancing warily around. With a grim expression he studied the house nearest to him. The corners of the building looked to have been melted and smoothed away. The yard was slashed with long strips of grassless areas. A vaporous smoke rose from the bare patches of soil.
Adjusting the weight of his shield upon his forearm, he lowered his visor, forcing himself to press on. One foot in front of the other, the young king crept forward towards where he knew the beast would be waiting. Towards the Serpent Road.
As a breeze kicked up, the scent of salt and blood grew sharp in the air. Cecil choked, eyes watering and burning in the acidic draft.
So, this is what Kain meant by not being able to see the creature’s attack…
With each step forward, his vision wavered and misted over. The putrid air made every breath feel as if he had inhaled millions of needles. Droplets of moisture began to form and drip from the edge of his armor. Where the liquid met his skin, he could feel a prickling rash spreading.
I can’t even get close enough to see this thing much less fight it! There must be a better approach than this!
There was no warning as it sprang upon him. A thickening band of clear fluid lashed out, coiling around one of the Paladin’s legs. Cecil could feel the armor warp as it fought to resist the acid. As the liquid began to bore its way towards his flesh, white enamel began to boil and smoke.
Green eyes half-swollen shut, his vision could make out nothing more than the shifting blur of color and light. His lungs screamed as acidic fumes tore them raw from the inside out.
Silence rose up within him. Silence and something… else.
A second and third tentacle whipped out from the shadows of an alley, a blow clearly meant to take his throat and head. Vision beyond sight shook him. The sound of air being sliced, the pressure of stirring humidity against his face – it was all he needed to aim a fatal blow.
A quick twist of his wrist sent the Crystal blade singing. A swoop upwards set the air hissing as water exploded from the severed bands of liquid. The swing carried downward, cutting through the tentacle that was wound around his lower leg. Cecil felt himself stagger back as the tension released.
From the direction of the shadowed alley, a hollow cry shook the streets.
This thing must be huge!
Ten more tentacles swung out in unbridled fury at the sightless Paladin.
Cecil braced himself against the torrent, a blur of lavender-on-white. The sheen of his sword capered without hesitation, sending prismatic fountains of molten light scattering over the small cobblestone plaza. Still, for every blow he managed to dodge, every limb hewn by the edge of the Crystal Sword, twice as many sprung out to take their place.
The Paladin could feel his lungs failing. The infection of the burning liquid borne upon the air was slowly choking him. Even at such a short stint, he was out of breath, a fire flaring in his chest at every rise and fall.
I’ve got to find the source of these things and destroy them there… I’ve gotta…
Motion overtook him.
A slight miscalculation as his thoughts grew fuzzy.
And instantly the horde leapt upon him.
Snakelike limbs wrapped his arms and entangled his legs, pulling him instantly to his knees. Everywhere the liquid seeped, his armor smoked and groaned filling the air with the scent of heated metal.
The Paladin lashed with all his strength, reeling back his arms and legs, fighting the snares that only multiplied at his shout.
I’m not going down!
Cecil’s scream rang sharply, then choked away to nothing. With a whip-crack, a pair of tentacles coiled about his throat, tightening in torturous slow motion. The Paladin’s head arched back, his mouth opened releasing a low-throated gurgle.
As his consciousness dwindled, he felt his body grow limp within the grip of the beast. The scent of pain and searing metal grew distant.
From beyond the hissing liquid that enclosed him, there was a gentle sound of warm harmony. A gentle green light drew around him, filtering softly from between his swollen eyelids.
It wasn’t until Cecil felt the cold stone against his cheek that he realized he was still alive. A choking breath rushed into his lungs and he found that he could once again breathe. He had been set free.
What in Shiva’s name just happened?!
His green eyes opened slowly, without pain.
I can see?!
It was dazzling, like fireworks on Mid Autumn’s Night. Rainbow light exploded around him on all sides. The earth hissed and spat steam where the water droplets scattered over the cobbled streets. The air was filled with a warm multicolored fog. The ground shook as a tremendous roar of agony rang from the tops of the buildings.
In the midst of it all a still silhouette took form. For the first time, Cecil realized he was not alone.
What? I told Kain to get all of his men out of—
The thought shattered in his mind as the man’s features grew clearer to his focusing eyes. The stranger stood like some immensely carved pillar, his form crackling with electric green power. Both hands were raised up before him, palms facing the onslaught of the water beast.
Dumbfounded, Cecil could only manage to watch.
The bands of acid liquid sprang out with terrible speed and number. Within a foot of the man’s hands each one reeled back, as if meeting some invisible barrier. Upon colliding with the mystical barricade, each watery limb shuddered, reeling away and exploding into fountains of diamond light.
Mouth slightly ajar, the Paladin pushed himself weakly to his feet. The stranger had placed himself between the young king and the beast. The barrier that he had erected was protecting Cecil while the light had cleaned the air and reversed the effect of the acid on his sight.
The Paladin finally found his voice. “Who are yo—“
The stranger turned promptly, his gaze sending a terrible jolting quake through Cecil’s soul. The fear that had gripped him for the water monster suddenly paled next to the panic that tore through his mind at the sight of the man’s face.
Green eyes… and white hair… He’s a Lunar!
It wasn’t the Lunar’s appearance alone that allowed him to come to such a shaking realization. There was an overwhelming presence, an unmistakable feeling that tingled over his skin. It was a sensation Cecil had felt a few times before, and only when he had been faced with a member of his father’s people.
This cannot be coincidence… a monster attack on Mysidia… the destruction of the Crystal of Water… and a Lunarian appearing in Baron!
The Paladin’s eyes flickered in struggle between fear and determination. With all his remaining strength, he forced himself to stand.
The stranger’s mouth parted in a hint of a smile. One hand motioned before him, sweeping away three more groping bands of water without effort. He almost looked to be mocking Cecil’s very thoughts.
“You still alive?” The voice spoke the Common Language in a softly sloping accent, “Good. I was concerned.”
With one half-kick, the tall Lunarian slid Cecil’s sword over to his feet. As the Paladin bent to retrieve it, an odd expression of dread shifted over the stranger’s face — as if seeing the young king with a sword in his hand was a greatly fearsome thing.
Cecil lifted his gaze to study the Lunar that stood before him. Something profound tickled the back of his mind. It was as if he was missing a piece of direly important information that he just couldn’t put his finger on.
His eyes fell upon the blade that was strapped to the Lunarian’s back. The Paladin gave a deep swallow as his concept of the stereotypical mage shattered. Obviously, the stranger was a magic user. But he also carried a sword that was almost a head taller than Cecil himself.
Sh..iva… If this guy can stand against this monster with magic alone… I’d hate to see what he could do if he decided to pull out that sword.
The mage was looking him over just as intently. Finally, he spoke again, the question startling the young king.
“You are Cecil, son of KluYa, yes?”
The Paladin straightened his stance, lifting his chin at the mention of his father’s name. With a grim face he answered plainly, “I am.”
The expression on Lunar’s face was unreadable. The air grew thick with his discomfort.
“Can you still fight?”
Determination marked Cecil’s brow. “Till the death.”
The mage gave a queasy lop-sided smile, “Let’s hope that’s not necessary.”
The king tightened the straps that had been jarred loose on his breastplate. “Do you have something in mind?”
“We need to lead it out. Expose the area of weakness. It’s keeping its body concealed.”
Cecil nodded his approval. “The Main Square would give us the most room for a battle. The buildings there are pretty narrow, so there’d not be much in the way of recesses to hide in. I’ve already ordered all the people of the town evacuated to the castle.”
“Well done.” This time Cecil had won the approval.
“Can I ask… what is that thing?”
The stranger gave Cecil a long stare. Then he replied, “A guardian of the Water Crystal. It’s an Elemental Dragon. It has gone feral due to the destruction of the Crystal.”
How did he know about…
Cecil resisted the temptation to gape. Instead, he set his feet firmly and nodded. “I see. So there is no other choice but to slay it.”
“Okay,” the Paladin lifted his sword into a battle stance, eyes flashing.
“My magic only deflects the element it is made of. It doesn’t actually harm it. You’ll have more luck slaying it with that sword of yours.” The Lunar drew his own sword. The blade began to hum softly, glowing in a dull green light. “I’ll watch your back. You have my word.”
Maybe it was the intensity of his voice. Or the strength of his tone. Somehow, Cecil knew he could trust the Lunarian to hold to his word.
The Paladin leapt straight into the fray. The barrier that the Lunar placed around him moved with his advance. It repelled the acidic sting of the air and the watery whips of the beast while still allowing his sword to do damage.
Instantly, the dragon reacted, drawing forward to bind Cecil in its hold. As the water surrounded him, the Paladin heard a thunderous shout from the mage. The wall that stood between himself and the creature pulsed, glowing a brilliant green. Upon contact, the gripping tentacles burst away into sparkling cascades of acid.
Cecil leapt back, gasping with trembling exhilaration. Enraged, the monster began to advance.
This is gonna work!
“Lead him to the Square!” the mage called. He took a few hefty sword strokes of his own then dodged back faster than one could imagine a creature his size could move.
“This way!” Cecil beckoned to the stranger, realizing that he may not know the way to the decided point of rendezvous.
The Paladin gave a few more choice stabs at the dragon before realizing it wasn’t necessary. The beast was moving forward. And it was moving fast.
“Odin’s Blade!” The Lunar gave a hoarse cry, leaping forwards as a tentacle ten times the size of the ones they had been fighting ripped down through the building next to him. “I think that got its attention!”
“No kidding,” Cecil hissed, his feet racing over cobble and broken plate mail.
The mage was running too, only mere seconds behind.
Through tunnel vision, Cecil led them down the side passages and narrow alleys he had perfected as a child. Even as much as the city had begun to expand in the recent years, the heart of it was still very much the same. It wasn’t long before they broke from the shadows of the buildings into the pastel-decorated marketplace that marked the beginning of the Square.
From the hissing crackle, Cecil could tell the creature was still following. From the rising growl, he could tell it was quite angry.
His sword point leveled towards the main street, the Paladin began to backstep into the center of the Square. A side glance over at the Lunarian found him mirroring the same motions.
For a shifting moment, Cecil felt a strange sensation, the reeling in his mind. Once again, it was as if there was something so painfully obvious that he should know about the stranger… but was somehow failing to see.
The mage’s eyes shimmered with internal power. His face was like stone as his voice rumbled deeply, “Be ready, Paladin… it comes…”
Cecil turned his gaze forward. Hands tightening around the grip of his blade, he planted his feet more firmly into the soil.
What he expected was another hailstorm of liquid tentacles. What he got was something much more fearsome.
A huge, snakelike neck rose in slow motion, towering above even the tallest of steeples in the town. The serpent features began mold themselves, chiseling into the column of water. Slitted eyes rolled and focused down upon the two men as the sharp pointed muzzle extended and formed. A gaping mouth opened to reveal long strings of oozing water and rotting flesh pouring from its jaws.
Cecil fought the revulsion that churned through his entire body.
Pulling his tall-backed collar up around his mouth and nose, the Lunar began to swear in a strange lilting language that Cecil did not recognize. Blinking watery green eyes the mage motioned forward with the tip of his huge blade.
“That’s what we’ve been looking for!”
“The head… of course…” The Paladin’s frown grew slowly.
“Behind the eyes,” the Lunar nodded. “From what I’ve read, its source of life is a power stored behind the eyes.”
The Paladin froze, staring at his companion. “Wait… you’ve only read about this thing? You’ve never fought one before?”
A lopsided grin was his answer, “There’s a first time for everything…”
Before Cecil could find the words to protest, the man threw himself forward in a full-out run. Instantly matching speeds, the young king leapt to catch up, running parallel in flight across the Square.
The head was much slower than the tentacles had been, which accounted for the reason that the beast had only fought with the whip-like limbs up until that point. Between the acid water and the tainted air, it would have no real need to show its face.
“Watch its breath weapon,” the Lunar warned before he lithely sprang away, putting more distance between himself and the Paladin.
As if on cue, the great maw opened, releasing a torrent of steam. Cecil’s face grew determined as he cartwheeled away from the white-hot river, mind calculating motion and reaction carefully.
The beast had lowered its head to get in a clear shot.
Neither man hesitated.
Like a reflection in the mirror, the Lunar and the Paladin sprung up, swords leveled, bodies tense and ready for impact. An eruption of white oozing liquid shot out all over Cecil’s hands, arms and face as the Crystal Blade pierced the right eye of the beast. Finding no resistance, the sword slid through cleanly, until he was up to his shoulder in filmy muck.
The dragon’s entire form shuddered. Cecil knew that his companion had taken out the left eye.
Power rebounded on power. He could feel the reaction tracing all the way up the blade into his body. The sensation was both strangely familiar and absolutely unknown.
The guardian monster did not utter a cry. It did not thrash about or attempt to free itself of its burden. It simply stopped. Like a machine that ran out of power, it fell in a great slump. Shattering into a rising torrent of water, the remains of the beast evaporated the moment it touched the ground, leaving nothing more than a burned patch upon the cobblestone.
Cecil remained kneeling, fingers wrapped upon the hilt of his sword for support. His breath came in heavy rasps. Fighting for air, one hand reached up and grasped the straps of his helm, ripping it from his head.
A low roaring sound rose up behind him as the entire city of Baron broke into a wild cheer from the battlements of the fortress. Exhilaration bubbled in the young warrior’s heart.
That was amazing!
When the Paladin finally lifted his grateful gaze toward his companion, he found the stranger looking upon him with a sense of fear and wonderment. Bushy white hair dripping in his eyes, Cecil pushed himself to his feet and offered the warmest smile he could muster as he approached the Lunar.
“I’m not sure why you came to our aid,” the young king began quite humbly, “But you saved my life… as well as countless others’. The Kingdoms of Baron and Mysidia are in your debt.”
“Well,” a dumbfounded expression flooded the mage’s face, “That’s irony for you!”
Then the stranger threw back his head and began to laugh in a huge, deep golden sound.