Ch2-1 Grief

With a self-satisfied grunt, the White Mage shifted the under the weight of his companion.

What the chimera- blazin’ hell are we doing here?

The question resounded through Newt’s mind as the front gates of Baron Castle closed behind the staggering assembly of Mysidians. It couldn’t be fathomed. Who could forget the decree that Baron set against their city only five years prior? Yet still, as the flood waters swept away everything they had once owned, it was to Baron that the Elder had led them. Their footsteps echoed through the citadel of the heartless kingdom.

Screw this! I don’t care if they’ve got new management or not! The title “Paladin” means nothing, not he has the blood of innocents on his hands.

One of the guards reached out to him. It was an offer to retrieve the slumped form of AC from the White Mage’s shoulder. Newt responded with a snarled curse. At the sharpness of the scowl, the Baronian took a number of steps backwards.

As if a few feet between us is enough to keep you out of the range of my magic.

As the glare turned into a set of bared teeth, the guard swallowed nervously and retreated further.

You swordswags better be glad I never had it in me to take up the mantle of the Black Mage. Though it’s really a damn shame. The world would be a much better place without people like you taking up all the oxygen.

With a self-satisfied grunt, the White Mage shifted under the weight of his companion. In the midst of the destruction of Mysidia, Newt had managed to pull the limp form of AC from where he had been floating, face down in the churning sea. Though much taller than himself, the Black Mage was of slighter build, so there had been little difficulty dragging him through the swelling tide.

Why do I bother? I don’t give a flying float eye about this lousy excuse of a so-called war mage. He probably won’t make it through the night anyhow.

The mop of hair parted in a dripping ebony curtain across the pale face of the Black Mage. Where the acidic waters of the Crystal’s fury had pelted him, pitted marks of red-turned-black now marked his flesh. He had not uttered a single sound on the whole trek to Baron. Only the shallow rhythmic breathing that brushed past Newt’s ear gave any hint that the boy he carried was still alive.

The last thing the White Mage remembered before the pressing waters bared down upon them in the crystalline chambers was the blurred image of AC running towards him. He had cast himself down atop of Newt in a feeble attempt to shield him from the incoming catastrophe.

Fool. Why didn’t you run? You turned around to come back for me at the expense of your own life. And you hardly even know me!

Maybe it was due to this that the White Mage had emerged from the ruin a lot better off than the rest of the people of the city. Or rather, what was left of the people of the city.

The nation of Mages shuffled along behind him, the last remnants of groaning refugees from Mysidia. All they had managed to gather were their lives and the drenched clothes upon their back. Most of them bore numerous oozing burns upon their sallow flesh. The few that retained enough strength helped to carry the frail and the young. Even the Elder himself limped along with the support of companions on either side.

The city of Baron heard their mournful lament and shuddered.

They better pay attention! There’s some serious crap going down. I wonder how much information the Elder plans on giving out to this Cecil, Paladin King of Baron?

The gilded double doors that lead to the Baronian throne room protested as the guards threw their shoulders against them. A crack of dazzling sunlight fell in a band upon the royal red carpet at the threshold, stopping short only inches from the hem of the Elder’s robe. As the doors swung inwards, the light grew, bathing the group of blinking Mages in an awe-inspiring sense of reassurance.

Very… nice…

Newt could only curl his upper lip in attempt to fight the overwhelming sense of wonder that rose within him. Lowly-born, he had never seen the inside of such a richly dressed chamber before. With a deepening glower, he rolled his shoulders under the weight of his companion as the procession advanced into the vast stone-arched room.

Tall ivory-carved pillars traced their path on both sides. The strip of red carpet was so lush that it felt as if with every footfall one was sinking into the comfort of a cloud. The walls boasted tapestries stories high that were bright with a blush of antique color. Each scroll depicted fabled tales woven by bards of old throughout the passage of time. Presiding over all the majesty, stood a pair of rich golden high-backed thrones decorated with delicately sculpted coils and curves.

The man who occupied one of the thrones, however, proved to be the most ordinarily clad item within the room. He wore a simple rustic tunic and pair of slacks, both the color a dull peasant-brown. Even the cloak that draped quietly over one of his shoulders was made of a sturdy, yet mundane, material. It was an outfit that would not be out of place in any commoner’s wardrobe.

On the other hand, his features told him to be anything but ordinary. Piercing green eyes shone brilliantly under drifting locks of snowy white hair that was pinned back under the weight of a rather plain band of gold. As the man’s gaze lifted and drank in the suffering that stood before him, something about his expression spoke of a gentle and sincere compassion.

As the Elder laboriously lowered himself in a bow of respect, the other man stopped him. Rising to his own feet, the Paladin King of Baron strode down from his throne, meeting the Mysidian Elder as one would an equal. A shifting light cast over the white-haired man drawing a flickering crown of pure starlight there upon his brow.

Is this guy for real?

In spite of himself, Newt found his own head bowed in attempt to hide the fact that his mouth had fallen open in awe.

“Shiva! Get some healers in here!” the young king called sharply to the guards. The statement held little grandeur. They were the words of a soldier-turned-king.

Maybe it was because sympathy took the forefront to the expected cultured decorum. Or maybe it was the king’s presence of simple yet profound grace. Though respect in the eyes of the White Mage came grudgingly, it came nevertheless.

The Elder greeted the king with a weary outstretched hand. “Your Majesty…”

“Please, just Cecil. This is no time to hold on to formalities, old friend.”

“Cecil,” the older man nodded in stolid relief. Then with a hollow breath he threw the situation out upon the floor. “The Crystal of Water has been destroyed.”

There was only the slightest change in the Paladin’s expression. “How?”

“We don’t know.”

“Why?”

“That is unknown as well.”

“What are the casualties?”

“The entirety of the city has vanished under water. As for how many were lost, I cannot begin to estimate. It was the middle of the Festival and…”

The broken sound of choked sobs from the midst of the shivering crowd passed through the room. Somewhere a gentle voice crooned soothingly to a crying child.

After some time, the white-haired man spoke once again, his voice heavy with strain, “I see.”

Newt could feel it.

As he lifted his gaze to look upon the Paladin King, he became part of a plaintive sea of eyes that had fixed themselves upon their last glimmer of hope. An uneasy silence stretched between the lone man and the group of mages. They were all aware that the fate of Mysidia hung upon the warmth of the Ex-Dark Knight’s heart.

And still there was silence.

Why are you waiting?

The king’s face turned to the sound of a second attempt to hush a child’s cry from within the crowd. His expression had grown unreadable and distant.

Can’t you see how seriously screwed up some of these people are? If you turn us away now, you are no better than your murderous dark-hearted brother!

A tremble rose within the White Mage as the alien green eyes lifted, fixing upon him with a sharply knowing look. It was no more than a few seconds before the gaze drifted to study the rest of the multitude, yet it still left him weak in the knees.

Finally, the Paladin’s voice rose decisively. “I have sent for Baron’s best healers to take care of your wounded. On my honor, I will see to it personally that each one of you is safe to find refuge here. Arrangements will be made for all of you to stay within Baron Castle for as long as needed.”

At that, even the mouth of the Elder dropped open ever so slightly. “Cecil, we cannot re—”

An upraised hand sliced the sentence in mid-word. “I don’t want to hear a single note of protest. I will not see the people of our sister nation go homeless. Your tragedy is our tragedy.”

“I understand, but…”

The young king responded with a gentle grip upon the Elder’s hand. “Please. Be at ease. Let your people heal and rest. You are under the protection of the Nation of Baron.”

“It is for your nation that I now fear!”

The Paladin’s mouth became a sheer line of silence.

The Elder continued, voice thin with exhaustion, “There is something more than just the destruction of one Crystal at hand.”

“What do you mean?”

“First, the city was ravaged by an unpredicted tsunami. But…”

“But..?”

“But the fury of the ocean was nothing compared to the horror of the beast. In our escape through the Serpent Road, we were pursued.”

The white-haired man straightened in his stance, templing his fingertips together. Then he focused back on the Elder. “What sort of beast?”

“From what was reported, it is rumored to look like some sort of sea-serpent. And it is elemental in nature. I don’t think it is a coincidence that an elemental beast appeared at the moment of the Water Crystal’s destruction.”

“You believe it is that powerful a threat?”

“I know it is. I’ve seen what it has done even when faced with the entire Nation of Mysidia.”

As if to punctuate the answer, the earth gave a remote rumble.

You just had to ask, didn’t you?

Newt swallowed deeply. He had not seen the creature that the Elder spoke of. But he trusted the old man well enough to know that if he was afraid, there was good reason to be troubled.

Silence fell across the room as the vibration passed into nothing. All eyes had turned towards one another as if to seek out the answer in the person standing next to them.

Just they dared to draw breath once again, the ground beneath them shuddered, knocking them all to their knees. A terrible roaring thunder ripped through the air. The walls of the fortress groaned under the overwhelming pressure.

Somewhere in the near distance of the city, an emergency warning bell began to keen.

“Doric! Siamen! Bring me my armor!” As the ground danced drunkenly, the white-haired man found his footing and shouted orders to the shaken guards. Not even a hint of fear shown in the depths of his emerald eyes as the he retrieved his sword from its encasement on the wall.

Newt watched as the Paladin King swung on his heel and made his way out into the pandemonium that now filled the corridors of Baron Castle.

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Ch2-2 Close Encounters

The stone began to glow brighter, lifting to float between the boy’s palm and his own.

A river of human souls flowed past the Half-Lunar, up and down the cobbled road of Baron. The mind-stream shimmered as if it was made of glass. But it never managed to wash the street stones clean.

So many people. How does anyone find peace in a place like this?

Ben stood in a pocket of motionlessness. He had chosen to wait at the corner of the inn at the lee of the tide. Uncle Fu was inside the building making preparations for their stay. Nodd had fallen asleep inside of the backpack after spouting a few distant mutters about the city as a whole.

So many people…

The Master Wizard couldn’t remember the last time that he had stood in the streets of a living human town. Compared to the cold silence of the Moon and the solitude of his room in the Lunarian library, the city spun around him at a dizzying rate.

He could hear the distant call of peddlers setting up their wares and people bartering along the street-side kiosks. The scent of the various food vendors had even roused an empty rumble in his stomach. Rations back on the Lunar world were painfully redundant due to scarcity. To see such a colorful display of mealstuff was almost overpowering enough to cause the Half-Lunar to forget his current state of concern.

I’ll certainly have to try some of those round red things before we head back. I wonder what they’re called?

Now left to himself, Ben’s green eyes observed the bobbing heads of people as they trotted by. His inner mind could feel the tickle of their passing awareness, sparks of individual light upon the dull grey background. The humans, however, seemed to have little interest in his existence.

Which is all the better for me. If anyone had an idea that Golbez was standing out on a street corner in Baron, I bet they’d have the Paladin’s army on me in a second.

Knowing safety was in secrecy, Ben had instilled every blocking ward upon himself to prevent others from sensing the truth of his identity. So far, not even the mages seemed able to pass beyond the mental shield. In fact, no one had even stopped to notice him despite his slightly out of ordinary appearance.

No one except for a single little boy.

The boy was a scruffy child no older than nine or ten. His eyes were bright and clear as they peered up from under a shadow of thick, dark hair. The boy hadn’t said a word in all the time he had been standing there. He had merely watched.

The Half-Lunar chose to ignore the child. After all, be they human or Lunar, children were deemed unimportant in the eyes of society.

Let him stare as much as he likes. It’s not as if he could even begin to comprehend.

Ben then turned his mind to other, more pressing things. To Incrytan. To the thievery of the crystal that had taken place the night before. To the pressing drive that had brought him to the very gates of Baron. And to his brother.

Cecil. His younger brother that he was so loathe to face, even after the passage of five years.

Just as his mind began to work through various stages of planning a way to avoid a meeting with the Paladin King of Baron, Ben glanced up. His gaze met with three new sets of eyes, all peering from behind the first little boy.

Peasant children.

Their clothes alone told the tale. Mud smudged across their faces in artistic splotches. Hair, no matter the color, was dusted brown and stood from their head in disarray. Their elbows and knees bore scuffs and cuts. They looked to be about as miserable-off as any human the Half-Lunar had ever seen.

Except, none of them seemed to notice their misery. In fact, they all appeared quite content as they stood there watching him in wide-eyed silence. Ben frowned, not so much at the presence of the children but at the pondering of the reason they had chosen him as their object of interest.

Maybe it’s my hair. I haven’t seen many people around her with white hair.

The Half-Lunar slouched and pulled his hood up over his head, fixing his mind on ignoring the pressing stares. But for all his efforts, he only discovered with each side-glance, the group of children was growing bit by bit. They now even gained a couple of dogs in their troop.

Finally, one of the strays, a dog with matted gray fur, trotted up to Ben, tongue lolling out in a greeting. It lifted one mud-caked paw, streaking it down the Half-Lunar’s pant leg in attempt to gain attention.

Ben turned and looked down. With a hint of exasperation from under the shadows of his hood, he muttered a few choice phrases in Lunar.

The dog simply sat back on its haunches, forelegs raised in a friendly beg.

The Half-Lunar sighed, his green eyes flicking over to the group of children. They seemed to watching the situation, faces halfway caught between curiosity and dismay.

“Will you please come get your dog?”

They remained watching, as if frozen. As if they could sense something in the Half-Lunar’s presence that the other humans could not. It made Ben highly uncomfortable.

“Hey Mister,” a little girl answered, “She likes you!”

Ben schooled himself into civility.

After all, the last thing I want is for rumors of the return of “Golbez the Child-eater” to start circulating around Baron. Not so early, at least.

“That’s very nice. Now, come retrieve her?”

“But she doesn’t like anyone,” the girl replied brightly. She scampered out and pulled the dog away by the scruff of the collar.

“Cept for us,” one of the boys corrected.

“I… fail to see your point,” Ben frowned slowly.

A few of them shuffled back at the sight of his grimace. They remained exchanging glances in a pocket of silence. The people on the street passed without a hint of interest in the situation.

“You’re different, aren’t you?” the first little boy finally blurted.

“Different?” the Half-Lunar gave the child a quizzical look. His own curiosity began to get the best of him and he found himself taking up conversation despite himself. “How could you tell?”

“Then you are?”

“Maybe.”

“I told you,” a tall, freckled girl whispered from the back of the group.

“How could you tell?” Ben repeated slowly. His voice had grown gentle. The sound of it in his ears surprised him.

“Just could,” offered the little boy. His expression was slightly baffled as if there was no other way of explaining himself.

It’s true that human children are more sensitive to things that are magical in nature than the adults are. Perhaps there is a connection.

“Are you from Mysidia?”

The question was innocent enough. But something about the implications of answering it left Ben suddenly taken aback.

“I…” he paused, struggling with the thought, “I lived there once. A long time ago.”

“So he is a mage,” one of the boys proclaimed triumphantly to the rest of the group, “What did I tell you guys?”

“I’m not a mage,” a sly expression flickered over Ben’s face. The Half Lunar found himself awash with something strange, something bordering on mischief.

The children turned back to him with mystified expressions.

“You’re not?” one of them finally asked.

“I’m a Master Wizard,” he informed them with a hint of amusement. “That’s different from a mage.”

The children instantly fell silent, pondering the meaning of the newly offered information. Their eyes were wide as their feet shuffled about in the dust with uncertainty.

“Master Wizard?”

“That sounds more important than the Elder,” one of boys took note to the others in the group.

“No way. No one is more important than the Elder!”

“Is there such thing as a Master Wizard, really?” a little girl whispered.

“He said so. I think maybe?” another nodded.

Ben couldn’t help but take pleasure in the feeling of amusement that rose from observing their reactions. There was something very innocent and pure about their sense of wonder. Something that tickled the back of his memory ever so gently.

Finally, one of the older boys turned back to the Half-Lunar, challenging, “Prove it!”

It was Ben’s turn for a mystified look. No one had ever been so bold to demand that he prove the truth of his magic before. Under usual circumstances, he might have pushed off the dare as foolishness. But something about the way the children watched, so expectantly, so ready to embrace his words should he share them…

“Alright then,” the Master Wizard straightened, taking a few steps toward them. “Someone hand me a pebble.”

The whole group of children lit up with anticipation. Catching the excitement, the grey-furred dog began to wag its tail.

“Here! Here!” the first little boy came hobbling forward, one hand fishing frantically in his trouser pocket. He lifted up a smooth gray stone for Ben to see. “Is my lucky stone!”

“Ah, I see,” the Half Lunar bent down to inspect it with a keen eye. “Exactly what I need.”

“You’re not gonna hurt it, are you? Or make it disappear?” the boy hesitated.

“No… no. It’s just not done. One has to respect the rarity of a good lucky stone,” Ben smiled slowly, dropping to one knee in order to be on eye level with the boy.

“Yeah! It’s real rare!”

“Now hold your hand open…”

The boy extended his hand, palm up. Ben placed the stone in the center.

“And the rest of you, come here,” he waved them around in a tight group, “Don’t want any of the grown-ups to see, after all?”

The peasant kids crammed closer in a circle around the two of them. They giggled with bright faces at the thought of keeping a secret from the grown-ups.

Ben reached his hand slowly over the top of the boy’s, hovering his palm about a foot and a half above. With a quiet, sure expression in his eyes, he focused his concentration upon the stone in the boy’s hand. A gentle pulse of energy responded to his call, illuminating the tips of Ben’s fingers in a pale green light.

The children pulled back, faces stunned at even so small a display of magic. But interest kept them from running away. For the stone itself had begun to glow.

“Wow!” the boy breathed in a gasp. He was staring at his hand in absolute awe, the green light reflecting in his clear eyes.

“Just hold it there, like that,” Ben gave him a reassuring smile.

The Half-Lunar lifted his hand upwards in gentle strokes of motion. As he did so, the stone began to glow brighter, lifting to float between the boy’s palm and his own.

“Holy Shiva!” one of the girls gaped. “He really is a Master Wizard!”

“Told you!”

The stone dropped lightly back down into the boy’s outstretched palm. The plain grey color had changed to a deep emerald green. A soft flicker of light seemed to radiate from the center of it.

The children pressed in around, trying to get a good look at the wondrous transformation and babbling in excitement.

So simple a trick. Human children are easily amazed.

Ben couldn’t help but smile to himself, just a bit.

“Mister! Can I have one?” one of the children peeped.

“Oh! Me too! Me too!”

“Mememememe!” one little girl clung to his leg.

Odin’s Blade… what have I started?

Standing up, the Half-Lunar found himself in a ring of big pleading, puppy-dog eyes. “Eh… heh… well, now… I don’t know.”

“Please please please!”

“I’ll trade you my Marnie doll for one!”

“Well… I…”

It came like a crack of thunder pealing through his mind. The pleading of the children was instantly swept away as a sudden jolt brought his senses to awareness.

Something was coming.

What?

Something powerful… huge… dangerous… and about to break loose there upon the city of Baron.

What is…

“Mister? Mister, are you okay?”

Blinking himself back to reality, Ben found the children gazing up at his expression of mindless trance in apprehension.

“What’s wrong Mister? You hear something?”

Is there enough time? Someone’s got to warn the people here.

“Hey now,” Ben bent down to them. “How about if we make a deal?”

The children nodded, still watching him in hesitation.

“If each of you runs home right now, I’ll give you all a lucky stone. How about it?”

“How will you know where I live?” one child peeped. “I want a stone, too.”

Ben tapped his head. “I’m a Master Wizard, yes? I know things.”

“Okay, you promise not to forget?”

“Yeah,” he straightened, standing over them. “I promise.”

They peered up at him, still uncertain.

“Ready?” the Half-Lunar urged, echoing the words that he had heard in the childrens’ games as he had walked through Baron. “Set!”

Their eyes grew round.

“GO!”

To his utter relief, the children all scattered, running off in various directions through the city.

I hope they make it home before…

Just as the last child vanished around the corner, the ground under Ben’s feet began to shake. His green eyes narrowed as he retrieved his sword from the packs sitting along the side of the Inn.

“Uncle Fu!” he bellowed into the doorway, “Adyn ion dewror weddynt dreigiau!”

Ben didn’t stop to see if the old Lunar would reply. His feet were carrying him into the center of the city of Baron.

Ch2-3 At the Gates

Like a reflection in the mirror, the Lunar and the Paladin sprung up, swords leveled, bodies tense and ready for impact.

“Your Majesty!”

Not now…

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?”

“Yeah.”

“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?”

“I might.”

“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.”

“Water-whatsit-who?”

“Never mind. Just call your men back.”

What?

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.”

“Cecil, but–”

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?”

“Do what?”

“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.

Cecil stumbled.

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.

No!

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.

Rosa… Kain..!

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.”

“Pretty much.”

“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.

Ch2-4 Infiltration of Baron

The shadows shifted and expanded, rising out of the corner in which the Half- Lunarian mage stood.

So this is what it feels like to be a hero?

There was amusement. And there was terror. He leapt back and forth across the fissure within his mind, unable to find safe footing on either side. Afterall, Ben had never been lauded for anything he had done in his entire life.

No wonder Cecil chose this path. It certainly has its bright points.

The big Half-Lunar shifted his gaze towards the Paladin hoping to find some sign of how to react to the people’s display. The young king’s face was warm and brilliant, lit with a peaceful inner light, his head lifted back to return the greeting of his people. And what a greeting it was.

If they knew that I was Golbez… what would they do?

The battlements were alive with hundreds of smiling faces, all bobbing wildly up and down with overwhelming enthusiasm. Their cheer was a deafening victory roar that rang from every stone of the city. The entirety of two kingdoms stood watching as the two men made their way through the castle gates.

Most likely, they’d hunt me down with brandished pitchforks and entry level elementals.

The air was filled with streaming appreciation as the people rained down a mottled assortment of color and light. Flower petals of every hue fluttered to settle lightly upon the path before them. Long shimmering cascades of white, pink and blue shot through the sky, no doubt some strange concoction of an over-excited mage. A grungy sock with a hole in the toe landed ceremoniously at the Lunar’s feet.

Humans…

The Lunar resigned himself to a soft mental sigh.

He didn’t recognize any of the guards that lined the passage… though something chided him for even attempting to try. The men were applauding wildly. Wide prideful grins were pasted upon their faces as they welcomed their king, shaking his hand and clapping him on the back. Someone gave a deep-throated woot as Cecil passed by.

Taken aback, the Lunar observed with increasing curiosity.

Even I know that’s no way for subjects to treat their king. But Cecil seems to adore it. And they seem to adore him…

His pondering was cut short as a familiar voice rang strong above all others. A chill rushed over his skin, his mind abruptly reeling with the weight of forced memories.

Now it begins…

“Your Majesty! Are you injured?”

“Captain! What’s the town’s current status?” Cecil deflected the question as the crowd of grinning soldiers parted, allowing the large man in midnight blue armor to move between them.

The face that emerged was familiar – how couldn’t it be – though the passage of years had done much to mature and harden the Dragoon’s already sharp, fiery features. His hair was shorter now, shifting wildly in brilliant gold streams, a striking contrast to the cold depths of his eyes.

Eyes that missed nothing.

They alighted upon the mage, scrutinizing his heritage with a hint of interest. There was no doubt Kain Highwind knew a Lunarian when he saw one.

Beyond that, there was nothing. None of the usual trepidation. No hate. No stormy silent anger. It was the first time that the Dragoon had looked upon him without a trace of lingering rage reflecting in his eyes.

For that reason alone, Ben wished he could hold on to his illusion.

As the three men passed through the inner gate, the sound of cheering grew muted. Inside the castle it was much dimmer, more solemn. The tone of conversation also dropped any formality that might have existed.

“It’s not too good, Cecil,” Kain admitted, the shadows flickering through his expression as he spoke. “But it damn well coulda been worse. I’ll hand you that.”

“How’s your men?”

“Too many,” Kain shook his head. “There were too many fatalities… that monster was a bastard of a beast.”

“I know.”

The Dragoon paused for a moment, looking down upon the young king, a hint of candidness breaking through his cloudy manner. “You were awesome out there Cecil. I take back what I said the other night. You haven’t lost your touch. Not one bit.”

“Eh?” The Paladin returned the compliment with a rather startled look. “I was… just doing what I had to, Kain. Glory is the last thing on my mind when people’s lives are at stake.”

“But still…” Kain’s tone grew somewhat crestfallen.

“Besides, I don’t know if you noticed, but I nearly got creamed.” Cecil’s eyes turned towards the mage with a nod. “You owe a lot of your thanks to him.”

Ben straightened rigidly as their eyes rested upon him. He gave a meager grin, attempting to seem friendly. Judging by Kain’s expression, it had not worked very well.

“I wondered why he was here,” was all the Captain said.

Feeling suddenly edgy at the lack of appreciation, the Half-Lunar heard himself quip, “You’re welcome.”

“Heh,” a smirk drew up over the Dragoon’s face.

Some people never change…

Cecil, however, didn’t look too pleased at his friend’s lack of manners. His voice grated with emphasis on the next statement. “I plan to set up a banquet of honor tonight to celebrate our victory. I’m certain that there are things of pressing importance that brings you to the Blue Planet.”

It was the first time anyone had acknowledged aloud the truth of his alien origins. An uncomfortable moment crept by, leaving all three men struggling to find other things to stare at. The silence writhed and chafed around them.

Cecil… you still haven’t accepted it, have you? Is it so much easier for you to continue to play Human?

The Paladin cleared his throat, obviously groping to find words to fill the void. But before he could manage to pull together his diplomacy, the sound of running footsteps filled the hall.

“Cecil!”

The three of them jerked about as a flurry of white and pale gold flung itself upon the stunned Paladin. The young king stumbled back a few steps as the delicate arms of his wife flew to encircle his neck, heels kicked up like a school girl under the flow of her colorless robes.

“Cecil, how could you!?”

“Rosa… I… I… can explain!” he choked.

“Cecil Harvey, you most certainly will!” The young queen’s face was stolid, her eyes flashing in determination. “What’s the idea of running off without even saying a word to me? Not even a good-bye? What if you had gotten yourself hurt… or killed… or… or! I was so worried about you!”

“I’m sorry, Lovey… I didn’t mean to..!”

“Mmm… I think that someone owes me a kiss,” she murmured, clasping Cecil’s face between both palms and planting her lips against his in a no-nonsense way.

Kain’s face was set sternly. It looked to be all he could do not to slip into a chiding grin.

Ben gave a sigh, leaning back against the wall in a pool of shadows. Despite the rising exchange of sweet nothings, Rosa must have heard him for she turned her head, noticing him instantly.

“Oh!” She gave a slight gasp, taken by surprise. Her eyes lit up a familiar brilliant blue.

The Half-Lunar lowered his gaze, unable to face the woman. Even through faded memory, he had always been struck by her angelic beauty. And now, more than ever, he could feel the sting of her holy ahura as it mingled with that of the Paladin’s.

They certainly make a matched pair, don’t they?

“Cecil,” she spoke warily. “You didn’t tell me we had visitors.”

“Visitors?” the king’s question placed emphasis on the plurality of the word.

Rosa glanced back over one shoulder, her eyes indicating a stooped shadow at the far end of the hall. The mage felt his gaze following in turn, blinking as the figure began to make its way towards the small group. Cecil was the first to speak.

“Uncle FuSoYa!?”

A huge grin spread over the Paladin’s face as he managed to pry Rosa’s arms from around his neck. In something resembling a half-jog, the young king sped towards the old Lunarian, and much to the surprise of all, gave him a hearty embrace.

“Cecil, my lad… how are you… how are you?”

Ben had never seen FuSoYa smile with such warm sincerity. The expression looked sharply out of place.

“Well, other than being literally thrown on the throne?” Cecil gave a boyish laugh.

“Ah yes…” As the two parted, the old Lunar held his nephew out at arm’s length, looking him up and down. “You are a… what do they call it… king? …King now, yes?”

“Yeah… yeah I am.” Cecil grinned, somewhat abashed.

“Your father would be so proud.” There was a soft twinkle in FuSoYa’s eyes.

Ben found himself looking somewhat enviously down at his feet. FuSoYa had never said anything so kind to him in all the time that he had known the Sage.

It’s probably because Father would want nothing to do with me if he were to ever see me again.

Cecil cleared his throat, deftly changing the subject, “So, when did you arrive, Uncle?”

“We rode in earlier this morning,” the old man replied with a droll expression. Something about the way he spoke placed stress on the word ‘we’. “We certainly would have been here sooner if it wasn’t for all the excitement about town.”

“Ah yes… well…” the Paladin gave a glance at Ben. “I appreciated the help, that’s most certain. I’m not sure what we would have done without it.”

“I see,” FuSoYa continued, in a shamelessly blunt manner. “So you’ve already met Golbez.”

The entire length of the hall seemed to grow darker at the sound of the name. The shadows shifted and expanded, rising out of the corner in which the Half-Lunarian mage stood. The flame of the torches flickered weakly, growing dull against the force of the fear swathed anger.

Even the light of Blue Planet knew the name of its once-greatest enemy.

“Uncle!” Ben lifted his gaze with a sharp hiss, face contorting and pained. His knees suddenly wanted to buckle as all eyes fell upon him. “Did you have to–!”

“Yes, I did,” the old Lunarian grunted, looking at the stricken faces of the others. “Or you’d have sat around playing tit-a-tat and hiding behind this ‘Benjamin’ nonsense. They’d find out sooner or later… you might as well get it over with.”

Sometimes I wonder if you do want me to end up dying a horrible horrible death at an early age. At least that would get me off your hands.

Cecil’s mouth had dropped open, green eyes fixed on his brother’s face as if seeing him for the first time. It seemed all the appreciation from the former victory they had won together had fallen moot. The Paladin’s hand sought out the comfort of the haft of the Crystal Blade, poised on a moment’s edge to draw it.

Fear crept into the depths of Ben’s heart, though he forced his face not to show it.

What do I say? I can’t likely deny it. Cecil’s no fool. He may not have been able to pick apart the feeling I’ve given him from the start. But the moment he puts two and two together, it’s obvious who I am.

Rosa unconsciously moved closer to her husband’s side, slipping her arm around his waist. Whether she was to seeking reassurance or to giving it was unknown. The blue of her eyes seemed somewhat colder now.

And can I blame her? Not at all. For all the heart ache I’ve put Cecil through… the terrible rending of one of her best friend’s spirit… and the long nights of terror and uncertainty that she faced as my prisoner in Zot. No… I cannot begin to ask her forgiveness.

Kain’s face had fallen dead.

Even though we were two pawns of the same mold… he still chooses anger against me. Is there any hope beyond the chains of the past? I should not have come here… I see it now more than ever. I should never have co–

“Gooolbezzzz?!” The Paladin finally choked softly, working to cover his shock with a flimsy good-willed expression. One hand lifted from his side, hovering as if uncertain whether or not to reach out to the other Half-Lunar.

“Um… Hello Cecil?” Ben found himself stammering weakly in reply.

Then the green eyes of both men shifted away in nervous apprehension.

Cecil’s afraid… too?

The Paladin’s hand dropped.

Face very pale, the young king stuttered a soft command. “Kain… get the assembly room lit and aired out. Talk can’t wait till the banquet tonight.”

Without a sound, the Dragoon spun on his heel. The shadows trailed after him as he disappeared down the hall.

Ch2-5 Opposite Sides of the Coin

“You made a Crystal? You can do that?”

“Master Golbez?”

“Please don’t call me Master…” the Half-Lunar sighed gently. It was the tenth time in the span of fifteen minutes that he had told someone that. “Just ‘Ben’ is fine.”
Golbez… They sure have a fixation on that name, don’t they? They must have cursed it a million times during the Crystal War… no doubt even cursed it in their dreams.

Rosa straightened, pulling away as if she had been nearly bitten by a snake. Her eyes fluttered down to fix on the tray of drinks in her hands. “Forgive me…”

How could I fool myself into thinking this would be easy? I knew better.

“No harm done, really,” Ben curled his voice in a warm attempt to sooth her unease.

There was little doubt that everyone was so flighty because of him. He had no idea how to show them that he did not still hold evil intentions — even though the intentions that they had battled in him long ago had not really been his own.

Still, it was frustrating. Frustrating for more than just himself. Cecil would not even meet his gaze. The Paladin seemed outwardly cheery enough. But the way his eyes strayed and hesitated when they drew near to his brother told the full story.

Tension pulsed through the air like a heartbeat. It throbbed in the back of his mind, pressing in from all sides. Every glance upon him held a mixture of calculating fear and revulsion.

It feels as if I am some sort of sickly creature and they can’t decide whether to nurse me to health or put me out of my misery.

The young queen lifted her crystal-blue eyes, forcing the hint of a polite smile to her lips. She carefully took a glass from her tray and placed it on the table in front of him.

Ben studied it, his face growing puzzled. There was a strange, yellowish liquid fizzing within. And the scent it gave off was particularly unusual. Almost tangy.

His hesitation was obvious enough to draw a sneering comment from the Dragoon who was leaning against the far wall. “What’s wrong, Master? You think we’d drop you a bitter pill?”

The Half Lunar didn’t give him the pleasure to know that his words had been heard. The acidic tone that spilled from Kain’s lips did not come as any surprise. Still, Ben had hoped somewhere beyond hope, that things might have begun a bit differently.

“Kain…” Rosa gave a soft hiss and frown of disapproval behind Ben’s back. He could hear her teeth grating in apprehension.

Cecil’s attention was focused warily in the direction of his old friend. The Paladin still seemed to be lost for words.

Ben cleared his throat softly, voice rising in a soft lilting sound as he pushed the mug away, “Er… no thank you. I’ve found that Blue Planet beverages don’t particularly agree with me.”

“Why beat around the bush?” Kain gave a soft snort. “If you can’t hold your alcohol, just admit it.”

A flush rose up into the Lunar’s cheeks.

How did he know about…?

“Kain…” this time it was Cecil’s voice that chided.

“I mean, Cecil can’t get near a mug of ale without breaking out in bright purple spots and hyperventilating.”

Ben blinked over at his brother. “You too?”

The Paladin’s mouth was open in mid-protest which instantly changed to a soft echo, “Too?”

“Alcohol… Can’t touch the stuff.”

“Well,” Rosa intercepted between the three by placing a glass in front of Cecil on the table. “That’s why Kantal is on the menu and ale is not.”

“Kantal?” Ben blinked questioningly, watching as Kain’s expression grew sour.

FuSoYa appeared to be more than slightly amused. His own drink was bordering on half-way empty as he dabbed lightly at the ends of his mustache with a random napkin from the table.

Not to be outdone by the old man, Ben lifted his own glass and began to down it rapidly. It was only halfway through that he realized that it was actually quite pleasant tasting. The drink was bubbly, warm and refreshing all at the same time. He found himself continuing to drink more out of pleasure than spite.

Wow… we never had anything like this on the Moon!

Cecil was now watching him, a mixture of confusion and slight shock on his face.

“Master Golbez… you shouldn’t drink it so fast or you could—“ Rosa began in warning.

“Just ‘Ben’ is fine,” he sputtered for the eleventh time. Finishing one last swallow he proceeded to wipe his mouth on the back of his sleeve. Green eyes lifted to see the bewildered gazes of the others upon him. A big lopsided grin broke his face as he pushed the mug forward for a refill.

Rosa blinked. Then she proceeded to pour more kantal his mug.

“Why do you call yourself ‘Ben’?” Cecil asked abruptly.

The voice froze the Half-Lunar. He looked up to see the Paladin’s eyes fixed on him for the first time since they had entered the meeting room. His expression held a hint curiosity and fear.

The words nearly made Ben’s heart leap in exhilaration.

Does he really want to talk to me?

It was also the first time Cecil had spoken directly to him since his identity had been revealed.

Ben cleared his throat, matching his brother’s gaze with a soft intensity. For a moment he groped to find the right words to explain himself. No one had ever questioned his choice in names before.

“Because Benjamin is my middle name. And it was the name I was called by most as a child,” his voice began to waver and he fought to push it back on track. “And Golbez… has too many nasty memories attached to it. I’m not Golbez anymore. I’m just Ben.”

“I see.”

Despite his words, there was doubt in Cecil’s face. It was an expression that plainly spoke — After everything that’s happened, how could you ask anyone to think of you as “just Ben”?

“There’s nothing wrong with ‘Benjamin’ as a name. I think it’s quite pleasant,” Rosa interceded between them with another timely served drink. Her eyes were honest as she looked upon the Half-Lunar.

“Thank you,” Ben gave her a grateful smile, dropping his own gaze shyly upon the newly filled drink.

“Don’t you think, Cecil?” the young queen turned toward her husband.

Ben felt the tension rise within his chest as his body tightened.

“My brother… is Golbez.” There was a cold sternness in the Paladin’s voice, one that gave very little room for anything beyond the cold plain truth.

A troubled frown passed over FuSoYa’s face. The old Lunar leaned back in his chair observantly, not having spoken during the whole exchange. Finally he cleared his throat, placing his drink back down upon the table.

“Truth it may be,” bushy eyebrows rose as the aged eyes fell upon Cecil before moving on to observe Ben. “But keep in mind that even truth holds shades of gray.”

Eh..?

Ben’s own eyebrows rose at the sound of his Uncle’s voice. It hadn’t been very direct. But it was the first time that the Sage had ever made a move to defend him.

“I suppose so,” Cecil admitted grudgingly, his tone shifting as he struggled to find another direction in which to lead the conversation. “So… what brings you here, Uncle? What is the news of the Lunarian plight? We knew nothing more than the fact the Red Moon left our skies…”

“Yes, well I decided that was probably for the best,” the old man gave a deep, grave look. “In seeing the damage done to your world and what became of…”

He paused, eyes falling upon Ben. Cecil followed his gaze with a grave expression.

“Things were not supposed to be that way,” FuSoYa’s voice grew hoarse. “There was no time for apologies the last time we met. But there is great sorrow in my heart to know the losses that were taken on all sides due to imbalances that grew up around our people being where they should not have been.”

“So… you decided to leave… just like that?” Rosa’s brow wrinkled as she settled down in a chair next to Cecil.

“Actually, it was something long planned. Things were not looking all that favorable for a timely immigration for the Lunar colony here upon the Blue Planet. But our probes had yet to find another living planet close enough for us to go to.” The Sage gave a deep frown. “It didn’t help that my impetuous brother decided to take it upon himself to set things straight.”

Here we go again. The same argument… everytime. Why can’t he just let it go?

Ben gave a soft grunt. “Father was doing what he felt was right. It was more action than anyone else was taking.”

“Well, you saw firsthand what came of that,” the old man grumbled. “Impetuous… foolish… impatient…”

“Yes, well,” Cecil was beginning to look uncomfortable at the rising tone of argument in the air, “Does that mean your probes located another suitable planet?”

FuSoYa took the hint and nodded somberly. “Yes.”

Kain finally flopped down at the table, sitting backwards in the chair. He leaned inward with a bit of interest. “So what you’re saying is… you guys took off to find a different planet to go live on? And you actually found one?”

“Obviously…” Ben let out a light-breathed sound.

Kain’s eyes grew slitted, voice dripping venom. “Well, excuse me… we’re not all the brilliant evil master-mind that you are…”

It took all of the Half-Lunar’s resolve not to glare back.

“Kain…!” Cecil hissed.

The Dragoon gave a cool detached look and turned his attention to his drink.

“Yes again,” FuSoYa began to talk over the situation, not even the slightest bit ruffled. “It took a while but we did find one. And we have successfully built our first colony there. I’m sorry for not sending word of our departure but there was little time to ready ourselves. The positioning of the planets were near-perfect to break orbit, so we could not hesitate.”

“It’s no worry, Uncle,” Cecil pulled up a civilized tone to cushion the conversation. He seemed to be very good at doing so. “It was just more of a surprise to actually see you here again.”

“Is it really?” the old man’s face grew shadowed. “You know as well as I do what’s going on in this world at the moment, Cecil. Things are not at all well.”

“I only know the snatches of things I’ve put together.” The Paladin pursed his lips. “Something horrible happened to the Crystal of Water in Mysidia and it resulted in the attack of the Water Elemental upon our city after the Mages evacuated here. But beyond that, all is absolutely blank for me.”

Ben found himself exchanging grave looks with his uncle during a long moment of silence.

Things might be already worse off than we feared.

The old Sage’s head lowered in an almost imperceptible nod.

Kain’s scowl had grown larger with each passing word. “Shit, Cecil… You didn’t tell me that monster out there had something to do with the Crystal!”

“I wasn’t absolutely sure at the moment. Not until he…” the Paladin shifted to regard Ben carefully, “Golbez… confirmed it.”

Rosa leaned forward, head tilted slightly, “Is it true then? Master Golbez helped you defeat the Dragon?”

Cecil blinked in a rapid succession as if the thought had just suddenly occurred to him. “Y-yeah. That is true…”

“And I think I recall you saying something about how he saved your life?”

“Well…” a growing struggle rose within the Paladin’s eyes.

What in Odin’s Name is that girl doing? If I didn’t know better, I’d think she’s actually trying to help me out here.

“So shouldn’t you thank him, Cecil?”

Ben attempted to hide his own astonishment by taking a long drink.

“I… I already did,” Cecil murmured

Rosa screwed up her nose. “You thanked him as a stranger. Now thank him as your brother.”

Cecil fell absolutely silent, both eyebrows upraised. The expression was so absurd that Ben couldn’t help but imitate it when their eyes met.

Wow. She’s tough. I wouldn’t wanna be in his shoes right now…

A soft chuckle escaped FuSoYa.

“It’s alright,” a gentle grin crossed Ben’s face. “Earning merit in the eyes of the Paladin King of Baron once – stranger or not — was more than I ever expected in a lifetime.”

Cecil’s tension abruptly softened, his eyes taking on a haunted and half guilty look. He drew himself up slowly, the feeling in the air shifting as he did. “It was a fine fight, Golbez. You still have the appreciation of Baron… and the Paladin King.”

“Eh…” Ben blinked up sharply.

What does he mean? What do I say?

Something inside of him felt as if it might burst in disbelief and joy.

“Well, I couldn’t have done it by myself,” the Half-Lunar managed to clear his throat and warble a stuttered reply. “All the legends could do nothing to capture the truth of your skill. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone handle a sword quite the way you do, Cecil.”

Hope rose within him as a sliver of a smile crept upon the young king’s lips.

“Though I am… what you’d call mediocre at best when it comes to weaponry use,” the wizard admitted somewhat sheepishly.

“Is that so?” Cecil asked with mild surprise. “We may have to test out that claim sometime.”

“Ah… heh…” Ben choked with a nervous grin.

Oh boy… what have I gotten myself into now?

“But, for the time being, how about filling us in on the situation at hand?” the Paladin leaned inward, folding his hands together. There was a more open light to his eyes now.

“Well, as I said, the Lunarians have successfully colonized the new-found planet. It has been quite a struggle to make do with what we have. But I believe it will get easier as time passes,” FuSoYa spoke heavily.

“Is there anything that we might do to aid you, Uncle?” Cecil’s mouth was a firm line but his eyes were soft and concerned.

“No, things are in hand dealing with that particular matter. But thank you, my boy,” The old man looked gravely towards the distant skyline outside the silent window. “But, we do need your help with something else.”

“You know I’ll do whatever I can.”

“Yes,” Fu So Ya nodded, picking his words slowly. “I’d counted on that. You see… an item of great power has been stolen from Golbez.”

A hush fell over the room as eyes turned to observe Ben with growing surprise. Finally, Kain’s hefty voice broke through the silence.

“What light-forsaken dumbass would do something like that?”

“That’s exactly what I was about to ask,” Cecil muttered.

“And they have taken it here, to the Blue Planet,” Ben continued.

“Are you certain?” Rosa’s face had grown mystified.

“Very much so. I’ve tracked it all the way here. It gives off a very… distinct energy.”

“But how? How could travel at such great distances be possible?”

Leave it up to a White Mage to ask about the insignificant details.

“Maybe one day I’ll explain it to you. But for now, let’s just say, it’s possible,” the Half Lunar answered gently. “Or else Uncle Fu and I wouldn’t be here, yeah?”

The young queen frowned, “I suppose that’s true.”

There was a shrewd single-mindedness about the light in Cecil’s eyes. It was obvious that through all the talk he was concerned about only one thing. “What sort of item would be so valuable that the both of you would follow this thief all the way to the Blue Planet? And would it have anything to do with what happened in Mysidia?”

He’s quick to pick things up… I’ll give him that.

FuSoYa pursed his lips, leaving the burden of speech upon his unwilling nephew.

“Well…” Ben squinted at the old man, not quite certain where to begin. “It’s a Crystal.”

All three straightened stiff in their seats.

“Not again!” Kain gave a soft groan. “Someone filching the Moon Crystals now?”

“Not exactly.”

“Golbez,” Cecil eyed the Dragoon for silence, “Please continue.”

“It’s sorta… a Crystal I made.”

They stared at him in open shock.

Finally, after several attempts at swallowing, Cecil stammered in astonishment, “Y-you? You made a Crystal? You can do that?”

“Well, it was just an experiment and still in beta form. But yeah, I did,” Ben met his brother’s gaze directly.

Cecil flinched back.

“But why is this one Crystal such a big deal? I mean, for the both of you to come out here?” Kain pursed his lips, face calculating.

“Because. I tried something kinda… foolhardy with this one,” the Half Lunar admitted. “In creation, I linked its powers to that of all the other Moon Crystals in order to give it a rather large capacity boost. It is what can be called Incrytan — a Key Crystal.”

Incrytan? I’ve never heard of such a thing.” Rosa began to twist a lock of hair around one finger nervously.

“No. Of course not. It was very experimental even in the notes that Father left,” Ben nodded slowly. “I think eventually he might have attempted to create such a thing over time. A successful Key Crystal would have been able to prevent the very war and abuse that the Crystals saw here on the Blue Planet. Because Incrytan could override the use of individual Crystals, things would have remained safe unless the Maker of the Incrytan was to become an abuser himself.”

“You make it sound as if a Key Crystal can only be used by one person?” the White Mage tilted her head in interest.

“That is true.”

“Then if you made this Incrytan, why are you concerned about its usage? It won’t work except in your will, right?”

The Half Lunar grew silent, a slightly grumpy look on his face. “That would be true… if the Incrytan I made wasn’t faulty.”

“Faulty?”

“Yeah… I screwed up,” he gave a meek look. “It was my first time making a Greater Crystal… and…”

Cecil placed a hand upon the table top. “So what you are saying is… this thief might have a way of using this Key Crystal?”

“Obviously, they are already figuring it out. The attack upon the Mysidian Water Crystal is proof,” Ben nodded.

The Paladin’s mouth fell open slightly.

“I’m not sure what the thief’s goal is here on the Blue Planet. But I can tell you that in creating an ethereal dimensional rejoinder between Incrytan and the Water Crystal would result in the dominance of radial energy being absorbed by the Key Crystal.”

“Woah… woah… woah… say that again more slowly?” Kain’s face was unhappy.

“Forgive me. I forgot that you were blond.”

The Dragoon’s expression spoke great irritation.

“Let me break it down for you nice and easy.”

Ben reached out his hands, a tiny starlight flicker hovering above each of them. The onlookers flinched slightly, but he chose to ignore it. The Half Lunar began speaking in a chiding voice.

“Key Crystal and Water Crystal.” He held up one hand, then the other before bringing them together. “Go boom.”

The two lights hissed as they collided, struggling until one was drawn completely into the other. Ben held out the remaining light. It was now twice as bright.

“Key Crystal,” he said with a tone of finality.

Kain stared at the hovering light with haunted eyes until the wizard extinguished it.

“So you mean… when Incrytan comes in contact with another Crystal… it can… absorb the Lesser Crystal’s power?” Rosa asked in a shaken tone.

The Half Lunar turned towards her and nodded slowly.

“Hence the reason we have come…” FuSoYa finally spoke. “And the reason we ask your help. We do not know who the thief is or what their goal might be. But after seeing the fate of the human city, it cannot be a good purpose.”

Cecil’s face had grown very pale. “I understand.”

Rosa gave her husband’s hand a concerned squeeze. “Cecil?”

“We… will help,” the Paladin said finally, giving a short nod. “But this is too big for just our Nation alone to face. This is a threat that will affect every Nation.”

Kain coughed softly then stared down into his drink. “Whatcha thinking about doing then, Majesty?”

“Captain Highwind…”

The Dragoon straightened, face growing no-nonsense.

“Get Cid,” Cecil’s voice was morose but steady. “Tell him to ready the Red Wings. All airships are to take flight ASAP bearing the news that there will be a Council of Nations held in Baron one week from today.”

The blond man was on his feet in an instant, one hand raised in quick salute. Before another word could be said, he slipped out the large double doors into the hall. Cecil watched the Dragoon disappear. Then his green eyes sought out his brother’s gaze.

“Light help us… I pray we are not too late…”

Ch2-6 Paladin’s Plot

“I can smell a load of crap even when it’s hidden under the front porch.”

“So what’s the word, Cid?”

The stocky engineer didn’t reply. Instead, he plunked himself down at the table across from Cecil and drained half a mug of ale in his first swig. The young king rested his chin upon one palm, drowning in his own patience.

It was well known to those who had lived in the Pollendina household that Cid never did anything before he darn well felt like doing it.

Finally, the words came as a half-belched answer, “All ships manned, supplied and sent. The captains took those official scrolls ya sent to the resta the kings just like ya ordered. Should be a matter of days before they come docking back.”

Cecil tilted forward slowly. “Were there any problems with the fleet discharge?”

“None worth mentioning. The Red Wings aren’t exactly what ya could call over-worked nowadays. Those ships need to get out of the hangars a good deal more if ya ask me. Those engines were spitting up dust.” Cid swirled his finger in the foam of his drink before sticking it in his mouth.

Kain leaned back, blue eyes hooded. “Then there’s nothing left to do now but wait.”

“It would seem so,” Cecil sighed, a tense look of frustration painted on his face.

“Hey, Cecil…” Kain grunted, dropping a heavy armored boot on the top of the table and stretching back in his chair luxuriously. “Chill out. You’re gonna pop a vein if you don’t get yourself pieced together.”

Green eyes flickered up at his childhood friend before the young king took a long draw from his own drink. “Just when things seemed like they were going to get back to normal again… something like this happens.”

“Such is life, lad,” the engineer gave a wry grin and a few mock punches at the air. “Ya dodge the left blow and get thrashed by the right. Ya should be used to it by now.”

“Yeah, I suppose so…” Cecil’s tone was glum, “But it doesn’t make it sting any less regardless of who you are and what you know. Believe me.”

“I’ll drink to that!” Kain raised his mug to his lips.

“You’ll drink to anything, Kain…” the Paladin grumbled.

The Dragoon swallowed his ale with a hint of a smile. “That is beside the point.”

Cid was busying himself tracing the lines of the woodwork on the table. His dark eyes shimmered from behind even darker lenses. “So what is it, Cecil?”

“What is what?”

“What’s chewin’ on yer guts?”

The young king wrinkled his nose at the mental image. Then shook his head, “Just stuff.”

“Stuff?” The engineer echoed.

“Yeah…” Cecil gave a soft sigh, hiding his expression behind a glance at his half-empty mug.

“All these fancy-smancy knightly training classes they put ya through and the only educated answer ya can give me is ‘stuff’? Come on Cecil,” Cid snorted. “I can smell a load of crap even when it’s hidden under the front porch.”

Kain snickered, “You’ll never let us live that one down, will you, old man?”

Cecil grunted, “Leave it to Cid to remember a failed prank that happened near fifteen years ago.”

“Well, let’s just say… ya kids never pulled anything like that again after having to clean it up, aye?”

“True, true…” the Dragoon subsided.

“So?” The bushy eyebrows slanted downwards as the little man prodded, “Out with it. What’s going on in that head of yers? Ya know ya can talk to us, Cecil.”

Kain nodded firmly, leaning forward to offer his undivided attention.

The Paladin gave a long compliant sigh. “This all just came out of the blue.”

“What did?”

“All of it… this Incrytan situation… the attack on Mysidia… the Water Elemental… Golbez…”

The Dragoon muttered something under his breath.

“What was that, Kain?” Cid gave the Dragoon a sharp look.

“I said…” The blond man scowled in return, “We should slap the bastard with a couple million sealing wards and shoot him back into void-space where he belongs.”

Cecil’s face grew unhappy.

“Kain,” Cid’s face was stern. “That wasn’t very thoughtful. This is Cecil’s brother yer talking about afterall.”

“So?”

“Isn’t there something ya’d like to say to Cecil?”

Kain paused, eyes falling curiously on his old friend. Then he turned back to Cid with a frown.

“It starts with an ‘s’,” the engineer prompted. “And ends in ‘o-r-r-y’.”

Cecil blinked slightly at the Dragoon.

“Okay… okay,” the blond man wrinkled his brow and grunted. “I’m sorry that your brother’s such a bastard, Cecil.”

Cecil’s tone was quiet as he began turning his mug between his fingers. “Regardless of what you think about Golbez, he is our ally for the moment. The first sign of a weak alliance is badmouthing your companions.”

“Com-pan-ion?” The Dragoon spat, eyes narrowing. “Cecil, what part about this situation are you not comprehending? I’m not about to trust that prick much less call him my companion.”

“Kain, close that yap of yers! I woulda thought that of all people ya would know what shoes Golbez stands in,” Cid chided in a booming voice. His fingers drummed out a heavy pattern on the table top. “Where wouldya be today if people had said the same about you, eh?”

The Dragoon curled his lip. “You know very well that I went up to—“

The engineer pressed on, mockery in his face. “Oh, that Kain! That no-good turncoat! Let’s take him out back and hang him to dry! Curse a rot on that good-for-nothing deadbeat!”

“Cid…” Cecil grated his teeth, sensing the growing tension in the air. “Let sleeping dragons lie.”

“Hey, someone has to shove it in his face,” the stocky man shrugged as the Dragoon shot him a glare that would have turned month-old dirty socks inside out. “If ya don’t have the guts to stick up for your own brother, then I will.”

“Stick up for him?” Kain growled. “Why in Shiva’s name would anyone want to stick up for him?”

“Because…” Cid’s tone fell somewhat more softly. There was a growing hint of sadness in his voice. “I can say that I know fer sure Golbez wasn’t always this Dark Lord that we fought against during the Crystal War.”

“Huh?” Cecil tilted his head slightly. “What makes you say that?”

“Just… trust me on this one, Cecil. Okay?”

“I… I don’t understand,” the young king puzzled.

“Of course not, lad. But due time tells all, yeah?”

The Paladin dropped his gaze at the heavy sorrow in his old friend’s voice. It wasn’t often that Cid looked so doleful. The drastic change in mood was enough for Cecil to drop the topic.

Never one to take a hint, Kain pressed on with a sneer, “If you ask me, I think we need to keep Golbez under lock and key. He’s screwed us over before. What’s to say he’s not trying to get into our good graces just so he can get a good final blow in this time around?”

“You never give anyone a chance, do ya Kain?”

“Listen, pops, I was the one that spent time under his control in Zot, not you!” The Dragoon jabbed one finger forcefully towards the goggled face. “I know just a bit more about what’s going on in that head of his than you do, don’t you think?”

“All I’m sayin’ is the Man of Darkness ya know was not the person Golbez always was.”

The firmness of the statement made even the Dragoon bite the last of his words and swallow them. His blue eyes turned to meet Cecil’s green. There was little doubt at the tone of conviction in the engineer’s words. The two of them had known Cid far too long to question him when he turned so serious.

Cecil found his mouth moving, a soft voice rising from the midst of turmoil. “Cid… I believe you.”

With a bushy nod of his head, Cid relaxed slightly. “Yer the one that matters, lad. What ya believe is what really counts fer him in the end.”

Brow furrowed, the Paladin opened his mouth in inquiry.

The engineer raised one hand to stop him.

“That’s all I’ll be saying fer now…”

Lips pursed in a straight line, Cecil nodded slowly.

“Yeah, but…” Kain was balancing his mug on one finger, obviously put-out at his dismissal in the midst of the conversation, “What does all this crap about who Golbez once was have to do with who he is now? It doesn’t mean he can be trusted just to romp about the castle and do as he pleases without someone watching over him.”

“This is true too,” Cecil nodded slowly.

“Finally. A word of sense from you. I thought your brain had gone moldy up there,” the Dragoon snorted.

Cecil snorted in return.

“Yer confusing what I’m sayin’ with what yer askin’.” Cid interrupted curtly.

“Well, get to the point of it then.”

“All I’m sayin’ is to give him a chance to prove to ya who he really is before ya go slappin’ him in chains of yer own judgment.”

“How poetic. Excuse me while I spew.”

“Kain… behave,” Cecil scowled, then turned back to Cid. “What’s your thought on the matter?”

A warm grin crossed the grizzled face. “Everyone deserves another chance in life. Ya had yer own moment up on that Mt. Ordeals, Cecil. Golbez needs one, too. I think that ya’d see a marked change in him if ya’d treat him more like a person and less like some sort of monster.”

“I… don’t purposely try to do that. I just honestly don’t know how to approach him, Cid.”

“I know. It’ll take a while. But no matter what ya know or don’t know, he’s not all as different as yer thinkin’. The same blood flows between the two of ya. Because of that, ya should try to treat him with a bit of love.”

“Love?” The Dragoon growled again. “What are you gonna suggest we do next? Hold hands and sing songs from Marnie’s Happy Happy Land? Get real, Cid! This is a cold-hearted murderer we’re talking about!”

“How do ya expect him to be anything but what everyone keeps making him out to be?” Cid snapped in return.

“Guys… guys…” Cecil fanned the air with his hands until the both of them fell silent. “I agree with Kain on one aspect, Cid. I’m not sure how to go about dealing with him. I don’t want to chain him up or set guards on him day and night. I know that I can’t watch over him… not with all the preparations for the Meeting coming up. But neither do I feel confident in allowing him to roam freely through the castle where he could be doing Shiva knows what. Somehow we need to find a happy medium. Do you agree to that?”

“I suppose so…”

“And how do you propose to do that, oh Enlightened One?” Kain chided.

“I’m not sure.” Cecil mused to himself, tapping his chin with one finger. “We just need someone we can trust to watch over him. But someone not too obvious. I mean, we don’t want Golbez to feel like he’s being spied on.”

“Brilliant. Let’s see, that cuts all the guards and just about anyone else we associate with.”

“Hey, I didn’t say I had it all thought out. I was just sugges—“

“Ya know,” Cid piped up, suddenly quite cheerful. “I might have the right man for this job.”

“Really?” Cecil asked, one eyebrow arching.

“Yeah… do tell,” Kain’s sneer was full of distaste.

“Well, ya ever hear ‘bout the boy with eyes the color of gold?” Cid asked.

Kain squinted in reply, totally caught off guard.

“I think I have. One of the children orphaned in the Pages’ Quarters here was supposed to possess such eyes, right?”

“The lad’s name is Chase,” Cid nodded slowly. “As sweet and forthright a boy as ya’ll ever meet, too, if I might say.”

“And…?” Kain prodded impatiently. “What does that have to do with Golbez?”

“Well, if you had been listenin’ to yer common folk-lore, ya’d know that golden eyes mark a child who knows only the truth,” the engineer leaned forward, voice lowering to a murmur. “They can see through straight to the heart of any lie… and are said to know a person for what they are at first meeting.”

“Is this really true?” Cecil pursed his lips in thought.

“I admit he’s more than a little bit strange. A good boy. But strange. As long as I’ve known the boy, I’ve never been able to pull one over on him. And some of the things he knows are just too uncanny, Cecil.” The older man shook his head. “Too uncanny. Enough to make a believer out of me.”

“So what are you suggesting? We see if this boy can snoop out old Golbez’s skeleton closet?”

“Actually, I was wonderin’ if he might want employment by the king?” Cid’s glance fell upon Cecil.

“What sort of employment?” the Paladin leaned forward in turn.

“What up-and-coming page wouldn’t want to serve his king? Or the king’s brother? Wouldn’t it be quite the honor to be assigned as Golbez’s personal servant while he is visiting the castle?”

A slow wolfish grin spread across Kain’s face. “I think I like where this is going. Get a kid in there that can see through all Golbez’s lies… who only tells us the truth… and use him to keep an eye on the bastard while we can’t.”

“Though… I don’t know…” Cecil frowned softly. “Using a child to do something that might place him in danger?”

“Cecil, take my word for one thing,” Cid interjected. “I don’t think the boy will be in any danger. If I thought Golbez’d be a threat to him, I would have never brought up the suggestion in the first place. Trust me.”

The Paladin’s frown grew deeper.

“Why not, Cecil? What other options do we have for now? At least it will fill in until we figure out what to do with him, yeah?” Kain spread his hands.

“I suppose so…”

“It’s the truth ya want, right?” Cid added.

“Cid..?”

“Yeah?”

“What did you say the boy’s name was again?”

“Chase…”