Ch4-1 Enter the Ninja

“You seem real familiar. Where have I seen you before?”

This sucks.

The glazed look in Edge’s eyes must have given him away. Either that or he had actually spoken the thought aloud.

One way or another, the Chamberlain stopped dead in his lecture, giving the young king the Look. Though it wasn’t as if the Look really had that much effect over the ninja anymore – nothing like back when he had been a kid.

I’ve got a meeting waiting on me and here I am being subjected to the Lecture of the Century… as if I didn’t know what “be on your best behavior” meant. He has absolutely no faith in me.

Edge beamed his most winning smile.

“Your Majesty… have you not heard a single word I’ve said in all this time?”

“Chill out, Gramps! I heard you. How could I not?”

Don’t work yourself into a cardiac distress or something…

“Chill… out?” The old man’s eyebrows bristled as he spoke, “It hasn’t been since the wedding of King Cecil and Queen Rosa that the Nations of the Blue Planet have come together in such a gathering. I have a terrible, terrible feeling about this. King Cecil has placed great stress on the fact that—“

“Baaah,” Edge double checked his reflection in the mirror before tying the red bandanna around his forehead. “Cecil’s a good guy but he worries too much. He’s probably just fretting over something stupid like trade routes and decided to use it as an excuse to get together all his old drinking buddies.”

“Cecil Harvey does not drink… he is far too dignified for such behavior. Unlike some kings I know.”

“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with downing a few friendly beverages every now and then.”

“But the fact remains that I don’t believe King Cecil would call a gathering of Nations for something so trivial.”

“Sheesh. You’re getting to be just as up tight as he is, Gramps.”

“Your Majesty didn’t even read the summoning letter, did you?”

“Of course not. That’s your job.”

“Your Majesty! That’s simply prepos—“

“Yeah… yeah… I know,” Edge gave a half-smirk, patting the Chamberlain fondly on one cheek. “But you’ll have to excuse me. I do have a meeting to attend. As much as I love timely entrances, the action can’t start until I’m there.”

And I’m late… As usual. Here they’re always thinking this is my fault when the truth is I can’t even get out the door without Gramps here reciting the entire Book of Eblanian Law at me.

“Since when has Your Majesty ever been in a rush to attend a formal meeting?” The old man’s tone had turned somewhat teasing.

“Hey, you said so yourself. It’s probably pretty important when Cecil’s the one ringing the dinner bell.”

“Or there’s a particular someone that Your Majesty is eager to meet?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“A someone who would undoubtedly be here. A someone who just happens to have green hair?” There was a knowing twinkle in the Chamberlain’s eyes.

“That’s none of your business, Gramps! So just drop it,” the ninja scowled deeply.

“You act as if your attraction to her is not common knowledge. You might as well have hung a fifty foot banner from the front of the castle that says ‘Edge Luvs Rydia’.”

“Say… that’s not a bad idea. Do you think it would work?”

“I would not advise Your Majesty to hold his royal breath,” the old man grunted softly.

“Why? I suppose you’re going to tell me that she’s not good enough,” Edge’s eyes narrowed in challenge.

Just like all the rest of them. I know I’m the king. I know I can’t just bring any girl to the throne to be my queen. But damn… does he have to be so critical of every move I make? Why can’t he see that I certainly don’t plan marrying the first babe that catches my eye? I deserve soooo much better than that.

“It’s not that at all.”

Surprise registered on the ninja’s face. “What did you say?”

“She has a good head on her shoulders… unlike most of the girls you bring home.”

”What can I say? I’m saving the best for last.” A relieved grin rose to Edge’s lips.

I can’t believe he’s actually agreeing with me on this…

“On the contrary. I think she’s too good for you.”

The young king’s mouth dropped open.

The Chamberlain reached over to place a fatherly hand on Edge’s shoulder, his tone becoming sympathetic. “But don’t worry. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance with her. Even smart girls make mistakes sometimes.”

“Oh, geez… thanks Gramps! Why don’t you just spit on my pride then roll it off the summit of Mt. Hobbs?”

“Keeping you humble is part of my job,” an impish grin crossed the old man’s face. “Along with reading all the important letters that you seem to disregard.”

Edge slumped as an indelicate sound rose from his lips.

“Posture, Your Majesty.”

The ninja subconsciously straightened, years of good-posture-chiding having been burned into his mind. His frown grew all the more dark.

What if he’s right? What if she really is too good for me? What if I don’t have a snowball’s chance in the Underworld with her? I mean… she can’t REALLY resist my charms at full-volume… can she?

The old man seemed to be able to read Edge’s expression with little difficulty. He cleared his throat with a husky sound before he spoke again.

“Well… just consider it a challenge. As for now, you had better get a move on. They’re all waiting on you. Timely entrances only work when they’re within fifteen minutes of the allotted hour.”

“Sure… pep-talk me now.”

“You’ll do just fine. Now get in there and show them what Eblan’s finest has.”

A smirk rippled over Edge’s face. “Yeah. You’re right.”

Besides… if worse comes to worst… I could always win her over with my raw skillz and prow-ess. I haven’t met a girl yet who could resist a good looking man with a sword… much less a good looking man who can use two swords at once. I mean… that’s gotta be worth extra points, right?

The Chamberlain gave a slight smirk of his own as he bent forward in a respectful bow. Head inclined, he opened the door to the guest room to make way for the Eblanian King’s procession. Edge straightened the front of his overtunic with his hands before parading jauntily out the door and into the darkened Baronian hallways.

Ready or not… here I come!

Baron Castle had always felt strikingly different than Eblana. Very little thought had been put into enticement value as the total structure was obviously designed for pure warfare. Pillars were bulky. Halls were dark and sometimes damp. Windows were small and often scarce in some areas. The whole place reeked of creation born of desperation and survival.

No wonder Cecil’s so uptight. Growing up in a place like this would screw with anyone’s head.

Eblan, on the other hand, was full of high-arching, warmly colored graceful architecture. Light streamed down through tall windows, playing off the gauzy silk streamers that danced upon the breeze. The palace had not been designed to withstand battle. But that was mostly because the ninja ranks would have never allowed for a real fight to get so close to home. Through the history of his nation, there had been very few battles that the skills of Ninjutsu could not overcome.

At least, when the battles were of hand to hand variation.

Damn that bastard airship fleet and their bombs! If Rubicant had come down to face me like a man instead of using machines to do his work, I would have wiped the floor, walls and ceiling with his lousy ass.

Bitterness. It was one thing that remained strong even after the last chips of the war had been cast. Eblan may have been rebuilt. The people may have been able to piece their shattered lives back together again. But it didn’t change the fact that Edge had lost everything in the matter of moments to the darkness of deceit.

There was never a day that he could escape the reminders. The shadows of two empty thrones towered over him in testimony of this very fact. His father’s crown seemed heavier to wear as time went on. Today, Edge had chosen to simply forego wearing it at all.

Not like I need a crown to prove my position. Let them get all floozy on me if they want. In the end we’re all kings. We all fought our parts in the war… and I’ll be damned if anyone starts pushing rank around as if he was better than anyone else.

Part of him wondered what had been in the summoning letter that Cecil sent. Part of him didn’t want to know. The Chamberlain had been correct when he pointed out that in the five years since Cecil and Rosa’s wedding, there had never been a full Meeting of Nations. And it had been precisely that long since Edge had last seen Rydia.

I wonder if she’s changed? I wonder what she’s been up to? She told me that she’d keep in touch… but she never did. I guess I shouldn’t have expected it. But still… Five years is a long time.

Edge couldn’t help his mind from wandering off with the thought. The young king was well known for flirting with anything remotely female, but that was all simply for the thrill of the chase. As nice as the company was, ninja honor wouldn’t allow him to move beyond an innocent kiss or a pinch on the behind. Especially when there was one girl in particular that hovered in his mind.

That’s just how things are until I know for sure I have absolutely no chance with Rydia. And I won’t believe that until she tells me to my fa—

All thoughts scattered as he walked straight into something large and unmoving.

A gruff rumbling came from the darkness above. It took Edge a moment of massaging his bruised nose to realize the sound was in fact someone speaking to him.

“Eh… oh? I didn’t see you there!”

The ninja blinked up as the words registered. Quickly, he realized what he had just butted heads with was actually a man. A very big man. Staring up in surprise, it was one of the few times in his life that Edge found himself lost for words.

“Ah….”

The young king squinted as the stranger passed from the shadows of the hall into the nearest torchlight. It danced in eerie reflections from the stranger’s white hair. Instantly, the ninja’s attention was drawn to the strange display. Though a number of people in Eblan had hair that varied from very fair to almost pale in color, there had only been one person Edge knew that bore pure white hair at a young age…

Who the hell is he?

“Are you okay?” the man’s green eyes shown with a hint of concern, “I didn’t tromp on you, did I?”

“I’m…” Grabbing a hold of his senses in both hands, Edge shook himself out. “I’m perfectly fine. It takes a lot more than that to knock me around.”

“I see…”

“Ben!” A second voice chimed in from down the hall. Much to Edge’s relief, he could see that it belonged to a young Baronian page who was scurrying towards them. “Wait up! I’ve got your—“

Edge watched as the page froze, staring at his royal badge in utter astonishment. A little smirk flickered to the ninja’s lips.

Just wait till this fellow finds out exactly who he just bumped into. He’ll be all about apologizing.

“Chase?” The white-haired man blinked down curiously. “Is something wrong?”

“He’s… he’s…” the reply came in a stuttered garble. Then the boy licked his lips and gave a low bow before Edge. “Your Majesty!”

“Heh,” The ninja’s smirk grew wider. “I like this. They teach kids how to behave around here.”

“Majesty?”

The stranger frowned, his expression growing more puzzled as he studied Edge carefully. Something about the intensity of the green-eyed gaze sent ripples of discomfort over the back of the ninja’s arms. As if there was something he should be warned of. The tickle of familiarity rose up in the back of his mind.

“One hundred percent Eblan Royalty,” Edge shoved the choking feeling out of his thoughts and fingered his royal badge.

When the stranger remained silent and unmoved, the ninja pressed on.

“You have been honored by the presence of King Edward Geraldine.”

There was a long moment of silence. Not even close to the usual reaction for his extra-cool personal introduction.

Finally, the stranger’s mouth turned up at one corner in a lopsided smile. “How… quaint.”

“Quaint?” Edge echoed, not sure if he should be amused or offended. “That’s certainly a first.”

“I’m sure it is,” a good-willed chuckle rose in the throat of the white-haired man.

Edge’s initial unease evaporated at the sound. There was something undeniably appealing about the stranger’s mannerisms. When the white-haired man turned on his heel in a swirl of green cloak, Edge felt determined to follow.

“Yo!”

The only sounds were their footsteps accompanied by the hurried patter of the boy trotting behind them. The ninja frowned and called again.

“Yo! Hang on a sec!”

As if realizing for the first time that the king was calling to him, the stranger tilted his head back. He did not even break his stride.

“Have we met somewhere before?”

That was the only possible answer. Between the overwhelming familiarity and the man’s lack of surprise upon introduction, Edge could only deduce that somewhere in the past they had met.

“Met somewhere before?” the stranger echoed. His face was painted in a purposeful expression, as if he was silently having the time of his life in the midst of Edge’s mental lapse.

“Yeah. You seem real familiar. Where have I seen you before?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Well, have you ever been to Eblan?”

“I don’t remember.”

He’s a bit redundant, isn’t he?

“What about Mysidia? I might have seen you there,” Edge insisted.

The stranger chuckled at that. “Highly doubtful.”

“Hey, quit messing with my head. I just wanted to find out if maybe we’d kicked back a few beers or something in the past, you know?”

“Do you not remember?” the big man finally paused, peering down with quiet eyes.

“No,” Edge retorted.

“Then how in Odin’s Name do you expect me to?”

The young king blinked, uncertain once again how to take the comment.

The little page boy peered between the two of them, face pink from the strain of holding his breath.

The stranger gave a quick lop-sided grin, “Come on, we’re keeping Cecil waiting.”

“Cecil?” The ninja squinted. Edge had almost asked how the man knew that he was heading to the meeting. But then he remembered it was pretty obvious what business the King of Eblan would have in Baron at the moment. Instead, he opted for the second question. “You’re going to the meeting, too?”

“Unfortunately,” a scowl rippled over the big man’s face. It might have been a trick of imagination, but it seemed that for a passing moment, the hall shifted into building darkness.

“Ahhh… don’t sweat it. Cecil’s probably got his boxers in a knot about a trade agreement or something. He takes this king business far too seriously if you ask me,” Edge gave a hoarse laugh. “Either that or he just wants to check and see if we’re all still breathing.”

“If only that were the truth.”

The ninja continued to attempt to alleviate the tension. “We’ll go in, hear what he says and be out of there in time for lunch.”

“Maybe,” the word was somber.

“Man, you don’t lighten up, do you?”

“Lighten… up?” Green eyes turned to him, puzzled.

Edge blew a stray lock of hair out of his face. “Never mind.”

The page cleared his throat, signaling the end to the conversation. Being so caught up in discussion, the ninja hadn’t noticed that they had arrived before the large double doors. Though Edge had been to the great Council Chambers of Baron a number of times throughout his life, this was the first time he had come there since he had been crowned king. Perhaps it was the reason he felt a shiver trickle over his skin.

Pushing the quiver out of his voice, the young king looked at the page and nodded towards the doors. “Well, what are you waiting for kid? Get in there and announce us.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” the stranger’s voice was a deep, troubled rumble.

“Of course it is! You must not do this sorta thing often? Well, let me teach you a few things!” the ninja parted his hands, fingers wide apart. “Since we’re already late, we might as well make a good entrance. Believe me. I do it all the time!”

The little boy darted an uncertain look at his companion, then back to the ninja. The white-haired man did not speak again.

Edge turned back to the boy, “You heard me. Get in there and announce us. And make it spiff, ‘kay?”

Golden eyes shifted one last time before the page turned and darted into the next room. The murmur drifting from between the parted wooden doors died to a hum. The boy cleared his throat quietly, voice shaking as he tried to sound as official as possible.

“Announcing his Majesty, King Edward Geraldine of Eblan…”

“Oh nuts!” Cid’s familiar ruddy voice chortled. It was followed by a swell of chuckles within the room.

Edge glowered.

The page continued, speaking slowly as if they might be his very last words, “And… High Master Wizard, Lord Golbez Benjamin Ya.”

The room fell into a dead silence.

Golbez!?

Edge choked audibly as his hands groped instinctively at his side for his ninja blades. Having left all weapons back in his room, they were not there.

Lucky bastard… they woulda been buried up to the hilt in his chest by now.

The doors to the Council Chambers stood wide open. On the other side, many pairs of stricken eyes stared at the image of the Dark Lord that stood upon the threshold of the doorway.

Edge’s own eyes narrowed in the silence. Only one thought passed through his mind.

Cecil, what the hell you doing this time…?

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Ch4-2 The Meeting of Nations

“You cannot desert the light of your counterpart or your quest will surely fail.”

Golbez Benjamin Ya…

The last echoes of his name lingered before fading away.

Their faces reflected in shock, as if the warning bells of Baron had just sounded across the city. All eyes had unerringly turned towards the doorway and adhered instantly to the tall, white-haired man.

The rulers of the Nations… The Heroes of the Crystal Wars…

King Yang Fang Leiden of Fabul. King Edward Chris von Muir of Damcyan. Elder Maximillian of Mysidia. King Edge Geraldine of Eblan.

They were all once my enemies…

Ben’s chest tightened in apprehension, his breath forcing itself between his lips in a low rasping sound. The insides of his palms began to sweat as the weight of the stares fell down upon his shoulders. In the pressing silence, he could hear the drumming of his heart. His face grew absolutely emotionless.

I knew it was a mistake to come here. They’d all sooner see me dead than…

“Well?!” Cid’s ruddy voice broke through the silence, a no-nonsense demand. “You two gonna stand there all day or are we gonna get on with this infernal claptrap?”

Even Edge seemed somewhat taken aback at the engineer’s reprimand. The ninja shot a steely warning scowl towards the Half-Lunar before readjusting his collar and striding towards an empty seat on the far side of the meeting table.

There’s still time… still time to get out… still time to try to find Incrytan without them. I tried to tell Uncle Fu that the humans would cause trouble. Why did he have to insist that we—

“Brother…”

The single word cut through the tension like a heated blade. Ben lifted his chin and peered across the room. Eyes growing wide, he did a double take.

Cecil had become a whole different person.

Dressed in his finest regal garb, green eyes sharp and piercing, the Paladin King of Baron stood firmly at the head of the meeting table. From the way the light caught and reflected off the ruby-gemmed crown to the air in which the young ruler held himself – everything spoke of a measured and absolute command.

This was a bad, bad, bad idea…

The inside of Ben’s mouth grew dry, his feet weighing him down leadenly. The sight of his Paladin-brother standing there, surrounded by the very men and women that had fought him to near-death only half a decade ago filled the Half-Lunar with a dull, mind-pounding dread.

I shouldn’t be here…

Everything within him screamed in warning. A cadence of fear swept his thoughts.

I should never have come back…

Somehow, it was as if Cecil knew. As if he could see straight through the emotionless mask that the wizard had painted upon his face.

There was something within the Paladin’s expression that was stressed… yet deeply concerned. The king lifted one hand regally, motioning to the open seat to his left side. It seemed like a safe place — in the far corner between Cecil and FuSoYa.

“Brother, come sit beside me.”

Ben’s mouth opened soundlessly, all thoughts of desperation stopping short at the power of the soft-spoken statement. Cecil’s companions had turned their attention towards the Paladin, watching his actions in quiet interest.

Placing one foot in front of the other, Ben strode over the cold expanse of stone floor, past the curious and condemning eyes. Chase trotted along in front of him and pulled the seat out upon the wizard’s approach.

The Half-Lunar hesitated.

The Page gave him a quick, encouraging smile. He pulled the chair out further.

Ben peered over at Cecil. The young king’s face reflected a hint of encouragement as well. Ever so slightly, the Paladin nodded.

Cecil… really wants me at his side? Even in front of all of his friends?

Quietly, Ben took his seat and pulled it up to the table.

Rosa beamed warmly at the two of them.

FuSoYa muttered an impatient grunt, “It is about time, boy…”

Chase patted Ben quickly on the shoulder. Then the boy withdrew to sit on one of the wooden benches along the back side of the room.

After clearing his throat, Yang spoke up quietly, “Welcome to the Meeting of Nations, Master Golbez. It is an honor for us to have you.”

The Half-Lunar blinked down the table at the older man. He seemed sincere enough, despite the oddity of the words.

Yang had been a Fabulian Monk the last time Ben had seen him. Now he was King of Fabul. So the story went with the majority of Cecil’s companions. The Crystal War had left very few who were directly involved with it unchanged.

“Thank you…” Ben found his voice while stumbling over his words. “But… please… just call me Ben.”

“Ben..?” Yang echoed slowly.

Edward’s face was uncertain.

“I’ll call you something, alright,” Edge simply snarled.

Ben froze as the hostility level of the room grew tenfold. His green eyes shifted towards where the ninja sat bristling.

This one is going to be a problem, I see…

“King Edge,” the Elder’s voice held a quiet warning to it. “That would not be wise…”

“No, I guess not,” Edge’s tone grew quickly submissive as he peered down towards the surface of the table.

Cecil let out a long, relieved breath.

“But since when did I ever give a damn about that?” the ninja barked fiercely. “Cecil! What the hell are you doing letting this murdering bastard into Baron — much less one of our meetings? Have you lost your mind?”

Ben’s mouth dropped open. As did everyone else’s in the room.

I take that back… this one is going to be a BIG problem.

“Edge!” Rosa hissed sharply. “He is Cecil’s brother!”

“Yes… of course.” Edge turned a glance towards the Paladin, “But, let’s face it… Cecil, your brother is a murdering bastard.”

Ben’s brows dipped sharply as his eyes narrowed. Unknowingly, his teeth bared as he bit back the retorts that sprang to his mind.

This guy just doesn’t know when to stop, does he?

Cecil’s face had grown red with his own suppressed anger, fists clamped like vices along the arms of his chair. Ben was more than a little surprised to see that the Paladin’s expression was one of brotherly defense.

Even Kain was looking a bit put out. “Listen, we’re not here to throw cheap insults at each other.”

“Oh yeah. That’s right. You would defend him,” Edge’s tone was cold and suggestive.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” The Dragoon slowly got to his feet, glaring down the table. Kain’s eyes had grown steely, one fist balled tightly at his side.

“Oh… nothing. Why?” The ninja got to his feet with a you-know-very-well-what-that-meant look.

“Kain,” Cecil’s voice was low and strained. “Please…”

Cid gave a short barking order. “The both of you! Sit down!”

Edge shut his mouth with an audible click. His eyes darted around the table, taking in the fact that disapproval hung heavily around him. With a glowering grumble, the Eblanian king flopped back down in his seat.

The Dragoon snarled a few quick words under his breath before following suit.

“Are you finished yet?” FuSoYa shot Edge his sharpest glare.

The ninja seemed to take notice of the Lunarian for the first time. He sunk back into his chair in response.

“Good,” the sage turned his attention towards Cecil and nodded. “Let us begin.”

“Pardon me for interrupting…” Edward’s voice trilled in a shaky manner. “But aren’t we missing someone?”

“Yeah,” Edge blurted quickly. “Where’s Rydia!”

All eyes turned on him.

“I… I… mean…” the ninja gave a nervous laugh. “You know how she is. She hates being left out of things.”

“Rydia was called to this meeting,” Cecil assured the group. “However, Master Leviathan sent word back with my messenger. It seems she is out on a training mission with one of her students and will not be returning for a few more days. He promised to get word to her as quickly as possible about the meeting.”

“So… you mean… we’re not going to wait for her?”

“No, Edge. We don’t have that sort of time.”

“What could be so important that—“

“I assure you,” FuSoYa cut in quickly. It was obvious that the ninja was pushing him to the end of his patience. “It is that important.”

“What of the Clerics of Troia?” Yang questioned quietly.

“I’ve sent word to them as well,” Cecil nodded. “But no answer has come back yet. I assume there’s been some sort of hold up. I’m sure a representative will be arriving any day now.”

“Leave it to a woman to take her time,” Edge grumbled.

Ben frowned.

These people can’t even agree to disagree… how am I supposed to rely on them? By the time they’re done arguing, all the cities of the Blue Planet will have faced the same fate as Mysidia.

“Well, one way or another, we have to begin.” Cecil urged, his words matching Ben’s thoughts ironically well. The Paladin fidgeted his fingers along the edge of the table before looking up again. “It has been five years since the end of the Crystal War.”

Silence fell upon the room as all eyes turned toward the head of the table. It was just a simply stated fact. But the tone of Cecil’s voice spoke volumes of things to come.

“Many things have changed since then. Namely… ourselves. Our positions. Some of us are now kings.” The Paladin peered around at his comrades, finally pausing upon his brother, “Others of us have walked the path of struggling transformation, coming from very far away to be here today. But despite who we are and where we have come from… one thing remains constant between us – the desire to protect and serve the people of the Blue Planet.”

As his green eyes locked with Cecil’s, Ben felt a strange stirring within him. It was suddenly hard to breathe.

“Needless to say,” Cecil pulled his gaze away. “We have some rather alarming news.”

“Okay… let’s hear it,” Edge frowned, leaning forward.

The Paladin nodded, turning toward the Mysidian Elder. “We’ll start with Mysidia.”

The Elder rose from his seat with a long somber look at the gathering around the table. Finally, after finding his thoughts, he began. His words were clear and to the point, descriptions perceptive and accurate. Piece by piece he described the crisis of the Mysidian refugees, the events that led up to the destruction of the Crystal of Water and the release of the Elemental Dragon upon the two cities.

The room fell to thoughtful silence after the Elder finished and took his seat.

Finally, the Damcyan king spoke. “I was wondering why Baron was in such a state. I noticed something was terribly wrong when we came in for a landing. And the wounded mages that were in the hall… must be the ones from Mysidia.”

“But how was the creature of the Crystal destroyed? Isn’t something like that nearly impossible to defeat?” Yang mused.

“Master Golbez aided in the destruction of the Elemental Dragon,” Rosa answered quickly. There was a slightly defensive hint to her voice.

Ben blinked over at the young queen curiously. She seemed unmoved as the rest of the gathering gave her a similar look.

“I see,” Yang’s words were warm with approval. “Well done.”

“Hrm,” Edward’s face also reflected deep thought.

“Awww… give me a break. For all you know, the monster was probably working for Golbez!” Edge scoffed.

“King Edge…” Yang turned slowly, a firm expression on his face. “Do not judge others before you give them their rightful time.”

The ninja fell into a brooding silence. When he next opened his mouth, his words came out filled with bristling anger. “Rightful time? As if he deserves rightful time!”

Cecil began to object only to find himself cut off with a torrent of fiery rage.

“No! You listen to me!” Edge jabbed a finger sharply at the Paladin. “Have you forgotten? I haven’t! I remember the sight of my kingdom torn to rubble around my feet. I remember the cries of the innocent people as the fires destroyed everything – everything – I have ever known! Have you forgotten the Darkness that brought it? Has your memory erased the things he has done?”

Jerking back, Ben lowered his eyes. His fists clenched and unclenched at his sides as frustration and anger began to boil within him.

“It was this man! This… this… monster!” The ninja demanded, “Cecil… you know his evil! Why?

The Paladin stared, looking taken aback.

“Hen-pecked boy!” Cid muttered. “You don’t have a clear thought in your head. Sit down before you hurt yourself!”

“So, Cid… you are on his side, too?” Edge retorted.

“This isn’t a game! There are no sides!” Kain shook his head sharply.

“Indeed,” Cecil agreed quietly. “What’s come to pass should be laid to rest. Especially if it endangers your ability to defend the future.”

“Hey! I’m not one to back down from a fight… but I know when I’m being led to destruction! You must all be under his spell!” The ninja spat, his anger sparking as his eyes fell heavily upon Ben. “Well, Lunar, I don’t care how powerful you are! You expect us to just forget the death… and the…the…”

He choked for a moment, then continued.

“Well, I can’t forget and I damn well won’t forgive! You whine and say it was not your fault – ‘Pity me! I was under Zemus’ control! I couldn’t help it!’ ” Edge mocked. “Well, sucks for you! But, if you think you can just waltz in here and dis–”

“ENOUGH!”

A sharp crack of tension paralyzed the air as the light of the room fell dim at the power of the command. Ben found himself on his feet, a furious snarl transforming his face. His palms slammed down upon the wooden table so hard that the entire structure quivered.

Cecil’s mouth fell open.

“YOU!” Ben roared, pointing a furious finger at Edge. “SIT!”

Edge was roughly pushed down into his seat by an unseen hand.

Everyone else drew back.

The Half-Lunar paused, gathering his thoughts before lashing out once again, “I can’t believe that you could just stand by and let your world be cast into darkness once more… The danger spreads while you sit here and argue about who did what and what they did to whom and who you want dead!”

Edge looked as if he wanted to speak, his mouth twisting into a snarl.

“Don’t you dare!” Ben growled with a sharp warning tone.

The ninja swallowed and hunched back in his chair, remaining silent.

“It isn’t by my choice that I am here. I came to get my Crystal,” the Half-Lunar muttered grimly. “I did not come here to be insulted and jeered at. It is obvious that I will get no help here since you cannot decide what you want to do… even when the danger is plainly placed before you. Therefore, I will now take matters into my own hands.”

Cecil looked horrified as his brother rose from the table to walk away. Ben could not stand to feel the pressure of the pained gaze at his back. His steps towards the door began to increase in speed.

–Darkstar…–

Ben turned on one heel as the word echoed through his mind in rebounding angles. He froze as prickles raced over his skin. The room continued to darken… though this time, it wasn’t at his will.

Rather, it was something else… something that was manifesting in a transparent form upon the meeting table.

This sent everyone on their feet, scrambling away to the sides of the room in apprehension. Cecil cast a quick, accusing glance at his brother, only to realize that Ben’s expression was just as mystified as everyone else’s.

Chase gave a high-pitched squeak before rushing over to cling to the wizard’s waist.

“Dark wizardry!” Edge hissed.

“No…” Rosa backed away a step, blue eyes wide. “This is something… different…”

The form shifted, light and darkness twisting in a strange harmony. First there came one hand… then another… as the outline of a body sifted into view. A tiny face appeared, framed with dark flowing hair and dotted with little-girl eyes that seemed to gaze into eternity. She hovered there, hands folded calmly as if she was upheld by a breeze that no one else could feel.

The depths of her gaze darkened, focusing upon Ben. It felt as if she could tear apart the secrets of his soul with a single glance.

–Darkstar.–

The Half-Lunar let out a low gasp. “Who… are you?”

— The Sygnus must become whole. You cannot desert the light of your counterpart or your quest will surely fail.–

Ben blinked. “I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

— The one that has been lost must return to the land of the waking light.–

Slowly, the wizard took a step forward, one hand lifting up. “What? What has been lost? Is it Incrytan you’re talking about? Do you know where it is?”

A tiny smile flickered over the girl’s pale face.

As Ben’s fingers brushed past the flow of energy, the image of the child rippled. He drew his hand away with a hiss, only to find it was too late. The air shifted and flickered as the vision scattered into a spray of sparkling dust that vanished upon meeting the table top.

Shaken, the Half-Lunar took a step back.

Silence hung heavy as the room slowly regained its light. Everyone’s attention was still fixed upon the spot in which the girl’s image had been.

Edge’s voice finally broke the silence, “Okay… what the hell was that all about?”

“I’m not sure,” Ben finally answered. His voice was very low. “But something tells me things have just gotten a lot more complicated than we’d like them to be.”

Ch4-3 The Sealed Cave

Rydia lifted her hand in front of her, heat gathering in slow pulses of soft green light, outlining her fingers.

“Come on! Let’s do it!”

“Edhan, no…”

“Why not? You’ve done it before, haven’t you?”

“Yes, but…”

“You’re not scared, are you Miss Rydia?”

“No, of course not!”

“Then let’s do it!”

“Now who’s the teacher and who’s the student here?” the young caller frowned.

“That’s a good question,” Edhan smirked in reply.

“Don’t get feisty with me, young man!” Rydia smirked back.

“Forgive me. It’s a dragon’s nature.”

“That’s the same excuse your father uses…”

“Isn’t it great?” he beamed a brilliant, gleaming smile.

The girl gave a soft clicking of her tongue in mock frustration. By now Rydia was well used to Edhan’s quipping comments and playfully arrogant tendencies. After all, she had helped to raise the young Prince of the Underworld from a very young age.

And once the time came about to begin schooling the boy, there was no other choice that Leviathan and Asura would have taken. The caller had happily obliged in having such and able and willing student. Especially since it gave her the chance to begin to make bonds between human and monster with the future king of the Summoned World.

Needless to say, the two of them had become close during that time. It was hard to find one of them without the other. Especially since Edhan fancied himself as an esteemed guardian over his favorite teacher. Not that she really minded his company. Due to his dual-nature of forms, he was the closest thing that Rydia had to a human friend in the Underworld.

And as much as she liked her home in the Land of Summoned Monsters, there were times when she found that she did sorely miss the companionship of others like herself. And during these times, there was one face in particular that came to her mind…

“Weeeeeeelll?” Edhan jabbed her gently in the arm, breaking her line of concentration. He then began to tug at her robes, pulling her towards the entrance of the Sealed Cave. “Let’s go! Let’s go!”

“Edhan… I said no.”

His face fell. “Why not?”

“Because it’s dangerous.”

“But didn’t you tell me that you defeated most of the creatures in here before?”

“That was a long time ago. And I had a lot of help.”

“Ohhh… I see…” his tone turned somewhat jealous. “So you’ll go in with your Overworld friends but you won’t go in with me! Don’t you think I’m strong enough to fight at your side? When will I finally get to see some action?!”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” she frowned in return. “The Sealed Cave is a sacred area. A Crystal sleeps within. It’s not the sort of place you go to hunt down monsters for training.”

“You people and your Crystals,” Edhan snorted.

“If you had lived through the Crystal War, you wouldn’t be talking like that,” Rydia waved a finger at him. “Besides. The Sealed Cave gets its name from the fact that it is sealed. I’m pretty sure the Dwarves put the seal back up once we returned the Crystal to its chambers. So we probably couldn’t go inside even if we wanted to.”

“What… is there some sort of key or something?”

“Yeah, actually, there is,” she nodded.

“And who holds the key to opening the cave?”

“The Dwarven princess… why?”

“Because it sure looks like the door is wide open to me.”

Rydia turned around despite the fact it was probably just another one of his made-ya-look jokes. Her green eyes focused upon the door to the Sealed Cave only a handful of yards away. The heated gasses in the air shifted and wavered, making her vision blurry. A trickle of alarm sped down her spine as she visually traced the darkened area where the door should have been.

It looked wide open to her, too.

“It can’t be…” Her feet made a pattern of sound upon the solid mass of magma as she strode towards the cave. “Why in Shiva’s name would they have released the seal?”

“We should find out!” Edhan followed, a mischievous expression drawn across his face.

The caller stopped short just within the doorway of the cave. Cautiously she ran her fingers along the side of the smooth mouth. She drew back with a start as the stone hissed, burning and smoking at the touch. Her face grew troubled as she leaned in for a closer inspection.

“Edhan…” Rydia’s voice wavered. “I think… someone forced this seal open.”

“What do you mean?” His cheerful expression faltered and faded into a true concern.

“I’m not sure… but it doesn’t look like the seal was opened by natural means,” Her eyes shimmered in the fire light. “And if someone’s broken in… that can only mean…”

“They’re after the Dark Crystal?”

Rydia pursed her lips.

Edhan was already on his way towards the door.

“Wait! Where are you going?” she demanded.

“Inside, of course! If someone is after the Crystal, we’ve got to stop them.”

“With what army?”

“We’re plenty strong!”

“I don’t know…” Rydia frowned. “Whoever did this was powerful enough to force the Dwarven seal. That’s no little thing.”

“Well… what do you think we should do? Just stand by and let them take the Crystal?” Edhan scowled.

“No… but…” the caller paused, staring into the mouth of the cave.

That’s when she felt it. A prickle of energy ran through her body. Rydia stiffened, hand gripping the whip at her side.

A voice echoed off the rocks, the sound growing in magnitude as the sound rebounded, “It is wise to take precaution, little girl.”

Edhan gave a short hiss, his violet eyes flicking sharply towards the shadows near the lava pools.

Knowing that the young princes’ senses were far better than her own, the caller turned on her heel to peer in the direction in which he was looking. Raising her voice, she gave a shout towards the rising heat-mist, “You would do well not to run now that we know that you’re here!”

“Run?” the scoff slid back through the brine. It was accompanied with a low throaty laugh. “You’re the one that should be running, human-child.”

Rydia balled one fist. If there was anything she couldn’t stand it was when someone treated her like a child. Long purposeful strides carried her across the magma flotsam towards where the lava gathered. Her long green hair billowed back by the blasts of heat that threatened to turn her back.

A figure rose, stepping out to meet the caller from behind the pillars of ruddy rock. A pair of cold, blue eyes flickered from under a sweep of blue and green hair. The flame light reflected from plated armor, bathing it in a bloody hue. From the silhouette alone, it was obvious that the figure was a woman.

The caller wasted no time, flipping her whip out with a sharp demand, “Where is the Dark Crystal?”

A slow smile spread over the woman’s face. As she drew closer, Rydia could see the dapple of red playing off the honed edge of her spear. Primal designs streaked her face in war-painted arrays.

Rydia’s face darkened as she repeated, “Where is the Dark Crystal?”

The woman leaned back, spiking her spear into the surface of the rock. She began to chuckle in a deep, mocking sound.

“Who does she think she is?” Edhan growled under his breath. Lifting his chin, he barked, “I, Prince Edhan of the Land of Summoned Monsters, demand you to answer the question!”

The laughter stopped as the stranger leaned forward. “Is that so?”

The red-haired man stood his ground, face stern.

“Prince Edhan, is it?” She strode forward slowly. Her smirk grew once again, “From the domesticated tribe?”

“Domesticated?” he growled.

“Ah… yes… you’ve given yourselves over as being pets to the humans.”

“Pets!”

“Quite a shame, I’d say. Such power… but you choose to remain dormant in your underground realms while the humans caper about on the upperlands.” Her eyes glittered coldly, “Or have your people grown so weak that you actually fear those parasites?”

“I beg your pardon?” Rydia snapped.

“Silence! I am not talking to you, low-life!” Her spear lifted in one fist.

“Too bad! Because I’m talking to you!” the girl stormed forward, a challenge ringing in her tone.

“Truly?” The point of the blade leveled at Rydia in one smooth motion. “You must be the Underworld caller that I’ve heard word of.”

“I am,” Rydia faced the spear without the slightest hint of alarm.

“A confident little louse, aren’t you?”

Edhan snarled, “Come on, Miss Rydia! Let’s sho–”

“Edhan,” the caller interrupted. “Go guard the head of the Sealed Cave.”

“What!?”

“I’ll take care of this,” her tone was no-nonsense. “Just make sure no one comes in or out of that cave. We still have the Crystal to protect!”

His mouth opened to object. But one look at Rydia’s face was all he needed to realize the girl was in no mood to hear arguments.

“This is against my better judgment,” the young Prince grunted as he turned and made his way back towards the mouth of the cave.

The stranger made a clicking sound with her tongue. “Now that was stupid. You send away the one edge you might have had on the situation.”

“You really think you’re that good?”

“I know I am. And there’s a vast difference between thinking and knowing.”

“Let’s see it then,” Rydia lifted her hand in front of her, heat gathering in slow pulses of soft green light, outlining her fingers. Static energy began to crackle, tracing and leaping from the tops of the stone pillars around them.

“I don’t usually waste my time on your kind… but it seems like you need a lesson in humility,” the smirk on the woman’s face grew. Just a quick flick of the wrist in Rydia’s direction sent a bolt of blue energy streaming from her fingers at the caller.

“Shiva!!” All concentration shattered, the girl flung herself out of the spell’s reach. Rolling to her feet, she began to ready a second attack. This time it was an ice spell.

Just as her own energy began to gather, the stranger brought both her hands up over her head. With a powerful downward thrust, glaciers of ice began to storm down upon Rydia. The caller gave a startled cry as she fell back under the weight of the frozen stone. Staggering and stumbling over the hardened magma, the girl fought to drag herself behind one of the pillars and out from under the artic torrent.

Breathing heavily, Rydia pressed her back to the stone. Her hands were shaking slightly. Somewhere within the battle of magic she had lost track of her whip.

“Well now, little girl. Is that all the famed caller of the Underworld has to show?” the woman’s mocking laughter burned in Rydia’s ears.

Frantically, the caller fought to formulate some manner of battle plan. It was obvious that this woman was doing nothing more than mocking her. The frightening thing was the matter that the stranger could cast the same level of magic that Rydia could… only at twice the speed.

And it seemed to come as no effort at all to the woman.

“How can she possibly cast so fast?” The girl whispered to herself, “I need something to distract her…”

Rydia’s eyes slid toward the direction in which she had just dismissed Edhan. Suddenly, she really wished he was there to help. He might have been able to keep the woman busy as she got a few spells in. At this point, nothing she could cast would be fast enough… the higher level spells were far out of the question.

The caller’s brows drew down in quiet determination as she began to gather energy around her for one last try. Summoning magic was her strongest skill by far… and something she was more than confident that her opponent could not match head to head. Hopefully it would be enough to catch the stranger by surprise and even disarm her confidence to make way for further attacks.

But as Rydia stepped out from behind the pillar, she found her stance mirrored by her adversary. The other woman was also pulling energy within her and calling out to the waiting void… an act that was all too familiar.

“No…!” The caller’s eyes widened.

The woman raised her hand, the flickering shadows of a Summon rising to her command.

An unearthly howl broke the air, setting the hairs on the back of Rydia’s neck standing upright. A ghostly form wavered into view far above her head… fur and fangs and two chillingly dead-colored eyes. Though the summoned creature looked like a very large wolf, a pair of spectral wings held it aloft in sharp descent.

“Windham!” the woman barked. With a quick thrust of her finger, the creature bounded straight for the caller.

All chances of summoning fled from Rydia’s mind. She reeled back with a hoarse cry as the beast leaped in an ethereal arc, gleaming fangs ripping for her throat. The girl threw one hand up, stumbling as the weight of the beast bore down upon her.

A pale, white light cast over the world… a luminous silence flooded her vision. For a moment, she could not tell the difference between dream and reality. Everything grew hazy as the light swept across the hissing lava pools. When Rydia next looked up, the Summon was gone.

She had miraculously remained unhurt.

“Whaaaaat!?” the stranger barked, obviously taken aback at the loss of her creature.

Dumbfounded, Rydia rose to her feet. Her eyes strayed over one shoulder towards the source of the light, which was now slowly dimming. The Sealed Cave.

“Edhan!”

Forgetting the battle, Rydia broke into a run. She could hear the echo of the other woman’s footsteps rushing after her. But she did not care. All thoughts were turned to her companion, a fearful dread rising up within her heart.

As the caller slid around the side of the final set of pillars, she gave a sharp gasp. Skidding to a halt, her green eyes darted over the scene that played before her. Every sense within her body told her that something was terribly, terribly wrong. That’s when her attention fell on the Crystal.

A girl was holding the Crystal. Though she looked to be quite young, her hair was as white as moonlight strands. Her manner of dress was strange, unlike anything that Rydia had ever seen in the Upperlands. Her ahura was familiar. Yet it was certainly not human.

The most concerning thing was the Crystal the girl held between her hands. It was not the Dark Crystal. In fact, it was not a Crystal that Rydia recognized at all. It shimmered in an acutely aware light — much like the Crystals that Rydia had seen upon the Red Moon.

It was from this Crystal that the white light came.

Edhan was doubled over, held back against the side of the cave. A quiet halo of silvery Crystal-light outlined his body, keeping him from moving. Though he didn’t seem to be hurt, he also did not give outward signs of being conscious.

“What sort of power is this..?” the caller hissed softly.

The white-haired girl was staring at Edhan with a shaken look on her face. She held the strange Crystal before her in a defensive manner, somewhat like a shield. Her fingers trembled, cupping the power between them and keeping the stone close to her chest.

“Did you get it?” the woman’s voice demanded from behind.

Rydia turned with a hiss. She had been so engrossed with the Crystal that she had nearly forgotten about her assailant. Now, Edhan was out of the picture… An unknown Crystal had come into play… And it was two against one.

The caller began to back away.

The white-haired girl turned to look at her companion. Then her green eyes fell upon Rydia. A trickle of sorrow flickered behind their depths. Finally, her voice rose in an answer.

“I got it. Let’s go.”

“After I finish this one off.”

“No… No more bloodshed!” the white-haired girl pleaded with a pained face

The stranger gave a low-throated grunt. It almost sounded like a growl. “Then what would you have me do?”

“Let her go. We’ve got what we came for!”

“Do you not know who this is?”

The white haired girl shook her head.

“Rydia of Mist. The last of the human callers… and a close companion of King Cecil,” the woman answered quickly. “She is most certainly an enemy… and one we’d be better off not leaving alive.”

“If she’s only a human, is she really that threatening?”

“No…” a slow, dark smirk crossed the woman’s face. “But she might be an object of use.”

Rydia’s eyes widened. “What do you think you’re going to–”

“Bind her,” she demanded of the white haired girl.

“What?!” the girl choked.

“Bind her… and gag her while you’re at it.”

“I…”

“Either we take her or I kill her. But, I’m not letting her go,” the woman stated finally.

The white haired girl turned to peer over at Rydia. There was a look of reluctance as she lifted the shimmering Crystal between her hands.

Rydia stumbled back one step before the brilliance of the Crystal’s light exploded through her mind. Instantly, she could feel her limbs stiffen, her body no longer an instrument of her own mind’s control. Her vision sparked with multicolored spots, the light blinding her.

Helpless to speak or even move, she felt herself taken. A rough set of hands shoved her forward at a quick-stepping pace. Rydia had no choice but to walk.

Somewhere behind her, she could hear Edhan’s voice calling weakly, “Uhnnn… Miss Rydia?! Miss Rydia!”

Though she fought to break free of the power that held her, there was nothing she could do. Edhan’s calls began to sound further and further away… until she could not hear them anymore.

Ch4-4 Head to Head

“So you might actually have a few working brain cells in that blond head of yours,” he grated.

Rosa couldn’t help but be curious about the Lunarian race.

After all, she had been friends with Cecil all her life. The knowledge that he was a Half-Lunar… that part of his heritage was wrapped within the secrets of the stars… was just as new to Rosa as it was to him. However, he seemed to have a harder time dealing with the concept than she did.

Rosa could remember the first time that they had a chance to talk alone at the end of the Crystal Wars. The Paladin had shied away from her approach a number of times before he finally admitted that he was confused and bothered by the revelation of his father’s history. Which hinted at volumes in understatement.

Cecil never speaks so openly about things. And when he lets a little bit slip like that… it means it’s really nagging at him a lot more than he’s telling.

She had responded with only one thing — the fact that no matter what his ancestry might have been, she loved him just the same. She remembered the quiet look on his face as he mulled over her words.A moment later, he had knelt down and asked her hand in marriage.

Yeah… so it was standing in front of the Big Whale out in the middle of the fields of the Mysidian continent. But Cecil’s a warrior… he’s never been one for tactical romance.

Of course, she had joyfully accepted his proposal.

That was even before she knew that he would be asked to step up as the King of Baron. For the most part, things were good. Rosa was happy with the past five years she had spent next to him upon the throne. Thoughts of the Crystal War and struggle with the truth of Cecil’s heritage had faded as time wore on.

After all, Cecil seems about as normal as any pure-blood human that I’ve ever met. Nothing at all like Golbez… Or FuSoYa, for that matter.

All these thoughts drifted through her mind as she watched the old Lunarian Sage stride past her, down the hall. On a whim of curiosity, she called to him softly, “Uncle Fu?”

Maybe it would seem strange to anyone else to hear the young blond Queen using such an affectionate term towards the Lunar. However, FuSoYa was her uncle through her bond to Cecil. Despite his gruff and distant tendencies, she could tell by the way that he treated his youngest nephew that there was more to him than he let show.

FuSoYa paused, turning at the sound of her voice. His bushy eyebrows bristled, green eyes focusing on her in the flickering torchlight. Anyone who did not know him would have probably considered the Lunarian to be quite intimidating — despite his short stature.

What is it about Lunarians that they all have this threatening air about them? They don’t even have to do anything more than look at you?

And at that moment, the Sage’s full attention was on her. Rosa felt a little shiver course through her body.

“Yes, child?” his words came softly, as if an attempt to ease her uncertainty. There was a deep, knowing light in his eyes.

Finding new courage, Rosa paced towards the Lunarian. “Are the reports true? Are you really leaving in the morning?”

“Indeed,” FuSoYa’s answer was measured. As was the way he leaned slightly on the staff in his hand.

“Why, Uncle? Is this Cecil’s idea?”

“No… no… This was my own,” the Sage gave a soft grunt. “There is not much I can do to add to the main questing party. However, I do think I may be of some help by other means.”

“I’m not sure I understand?” Rosa tilted her head. Locks of soft gold fell in front of her eyes only to be removed with a practiced flip of one finger.

“I believe that there were important hints disclosed by that strange child-image that appeared during the Meeting of Nations,” he paused for a moment, stroking one gnarled hand through his beard. “Hints that there are more powers at work in this world than Golbez or I had considered.”

The young Queen stood in a moment of pondering silence. When she finally spoke, her tone was level and concerned. “I agree. Does anyone even know what the little girl was… or why she appeared here?”

“No. These things we do not know. But we mean to find out,” FuSoYa’s eyebrows lowered.

“We?”

“Yes. The Mysidian Elder and I. We will be undertaking a line of research in attempt to clarify the message that was given at the Meeting of Nations,” the Sage frowned slowly. “Call it an inner sense, but I believe the terms ‘Darkstar’ and ‘Sygnus’ hold much more importance to our situation than might be thought.”

“Really?” The chills were returning, prickling the hair on the back of her arms. Just the tone of the old Lunarian’s voice was enough to turn her stomach.

“Cecil has arranged transportation for us,” FuSoYa gave a short nod. “We have spoken with the Damcyan King and he has agreed to give us aid through the use of his library.”

“Edward…? I didn’t know there was a library of note in Damcyan,” Rosa blinked slowly.

“The King is a Bard by trade, yes?”

“That’s true…”

“Even the Elder agreed that the second-most impressive library on the Blue Planet Upperworld is located in Damcyan.” FuSoYa’s face had grown grave once again, “The Mysidian library would have served better. However, the Elder has deemed that it may still be unsafe to travel back through the Serpent Road. So we will begin our search in King Edward’s library.”

“And Cecil’s okayed all this?” her brow wrinkled.

“I have discussed it with him at length. He seems to think it a good idea for a few of us to travel and remain in the Damcyan nation… if nothing more but to put up a defense around the Crystal of Fire,” he replied. “I also do not think Cecil is especially comfortable in sending King Edward home by way of airship alone. One of his fleet is missing, I do believe.”

“The Troian transport? There’s still been no word from the Clerics?”

“As of last that I have heard, no.”

“That is… worrisome…” Rosa frowned slowly. But before she was able to follow up with her thoughts on the matter, a call rang across the hall.

“Lady Rosa!”

Both the Sage and the Queen turned at the sound. A group of three young White Mages were scuttling towards them. The look on their faces was one of stricken fear.

“Lady Rosa… you just have to talk some sense into him!” one pulled up short, breathing heavily after the jog.

“He won’t even let us come near!” a second spread her hands in defeat. “We’ve tried everything to negotiate with him…”

“And he’s got the most ill manners I’ve ever seen,” another White Mage huffed, crossing her arms. “I didn’t think they allowed such brutes into the Mysidian Academy!”

“Hold now, I don’t quite understand,” Rosa’s puzzled look took in the three with one glance. “Start at the beginning please… explain what’s going on?”

“I’m sorry, Lady Rosa,” the first Mage bowed low, face marked with humiliation as she held out a small white cloth. “We are the current Mages on healing duty… the ones assigned to restore the wounded of Mysidia.”

The young Queen took the cloth with a start, “Aren’t these… Cecil’s boxer shorts!?”

The three White Mages flushed bright red.

“Indeed,” FuSoYa murmured from over Rosa’s shoulder. “Enchanted… boxer shorts…”

It was Rosa’s turn to flush. “Ah… Cecil had mentioned… something to that effect. But I didn’t know he was being serious. So Golbez really… …?”

“Encased the power to heal the wounds made by the Crystal of Water into a pair of boxer shorts?”

“…uh…”

“Yes, he did,” FuSoYa’s eyes shimmered slightly in mirth. “No one ever accused that boy of having a shred of sense, after all.”

“Oh… he’s not so bad. I’m sure this has Cecil writhing at the thought, however,” Rosa gave a soft laugh.

“Naturally.”

The young Queen turned back to the three Mages. “So you’ve been using this to attend to the wounded Mysidians?”

“Yes Ma’am… except…”

“Except?”

“There’s a Mysidian White Mage who refuses to let us cure one of the Black Mages…”

“Why?”

“Well… I really don’t know. We were hoping maybe you could do something?” the White Mage gave a perplexed look.

“It’s that bad?” Rosa squinted.

“He threatened to throw us from the upper window of the third floor tower, Your Majesty,” another Mage said, the look in her eyes showing she was not joking.

“It sounds like he’s probably delirious… or simply delusional,” FuSoYa noted in a rather droll manner.

“Well… I suppose something should be done,” Rosa nodded and began to make her way down the hall in the direction that the White Mages had arrived.

The three Mages bowed as she strode past, a look of relief on their faces.

Much to Rosa’s surprise, FuSoYa turned to follow. No words were exchanged between them as the hallway passed under their feet. There was only the tmp-tmp sound of the Lunarian’s staff meeting stone as he strode behind her. Despite his age, Rosa found he had no difficulty keeping up with the speed of her steps.

As the two of them crossed the threshold of the medical quarters, a jeering snarl rang in Rosa’s ears.

“What did I just say? Not a one of you gimp-ass Baronian White Mage wanna-bes are gonna lay a finger on him!”

A crimson-haired Mysidian White Mage stood in the corner, glaring daggers at the two of them from across the room. As the Queen’s soft azure eyes locked with his cold, pale blue gaze, Rosa could see that he was very serious. Dangerously so.

The way he stood over the young, dark-haired Black Mage was not too unlike that of a dragon protecting its horde… a dragon that was ready to strike at any fatal second. She had never seen a White Mage glower with such terrible fury.

Considering what he’s been through… maybe FuSoYa’s right. After all, his home has just been destroyed. He might have lost a number of people who were close to him. He could be suffering from some sort of shock?

“Please… I’m only here to help,” Rosa intoned gently.

“Didn’t you hear me the first time?” he snarled in return. “I told you to piss off!”

Rosa paused, taken aback. It had been a long, long time since someone had spoken to her in such a manner.

Perhaps he just doesn’t know who I am? I’m sure if he knew I am a White Wizard and Queen Rosa Harvey that he would change his tune.

“Excuse me but… do you even know who you’re talking to?”

“Does it look like I care?”

“I happen to be the Queen of Baron,” she stated firmly.

It was such an odd feeling… it wasn’t very often that Rosa used her rank over anyone else. But surely it was called for in dealing with such a badly behaved White Mage.

“Royalty, huh…” he broke off into a moment of silence.

There. Now he’s rethinking his approach. That’s a little better.

“So that means… you can’t piss off for your own self and you’ve gotta go order someone else to do it for you?”

Her mouth almost dropped open. She gathered every ounce of conviction she had not to let the White Mage see her shock at his response.

I take that back. Maybe he really is just a jerk.

“Of course,” she retorted smoothly. “That’s what we do best.”

It was his turn for silent astonishment. Though his face didn’t show it, she could tell by the way his head had jerked slightly as the words registered upon him.

He hadn’t been expecting that, by far. Not from a woman. And certainly not from one that claimed to be the Queen of Baron.

“So you might actually have a few working brain cells in that blond head of yours,” he grated.

“It’s probably more than you can say for yourself.”

“So, what do you want? ‘Best Bitchiness of the Year’ award?” he crossed his arms.

“Oh, I don’t know. Judging by the swill that comes out of your mouth, I’d think you’d be first in line for something like that,” Rosa replied curtly.

The White Mage paused. His eyes never left the image of the young Queen that stood before him.

She probably didn’t look all that much like royalty at the moment — clothed in a simple white dress that bore the marks of a hard day of tending to the wounded. Her hair was pulled back out of her face with small wisps of gold stuck to the heat of her brow. Her sky blue eyes remained locked with his gaze, never flinching as the words flung between them.

FuSoYa simply stood in silence at the doorway. It was apparent wisdom that kept him from sticking his nose in between the two warring White Mages.

“Not bad,” the red-haired youth admitted after a moment of thought.

“My father was a military man… as is my husband,” Rosa’s face was stern. “You learn how to talk the talk when you’ve been raised around soldiers all your life.”

“It’s not very ladylike,” the White Mage gave her a long look.

“Sometimes ladylike doesn’t get the job done.”

His face had grown somewhat more relaxed as he finally nodded. “Well, are you going to stand around here running your mouth all day? Or are you gonna show me that your royal good-for-nothing-ass can do something more than knit sweaters?”

Rosa gave a half-disgusted look, pushing her way to stand beside the sprawled form of the Black Mage. “I’ve never knitted a sweater in my life.”

“Then you’re more useless than I thought.”

The young Queen worked to shove this last comment out of her mind as she knelt down. One cool hand reached out, pulling the blanket off the Black Mage that lay on the floor.

Though he was not, by far, the most gruesomely wounded of the mages that Rosa had seen, the flesh burns on his face and neck seem to be very deep and pronounced. Some of them even bled, trickling slow streams of black liquid. The mage’s skin was very pale in contrast, and almost rubbery to her touch. His eyes seemed to be rolled up into the back of his head… and the tension quivering through his body spoke of a person in great pain.

The fiery-haired White Mage leaned over from the other side. “He’s gonna die. You don’t have to tell me one way or another… he looks half dead already. And nothing I’ve done has affected the wounds. So why you wasting your time?”

“Then why are you wasting your time? Is he a friend of yours?” Rosa answered in a murmur, pulling the cloth away from the Black Mage’s body. She began to remove his heavy over-coat, eyes growing damp as the scent of burned flesh struck her senses.

The White Mage fell silent, face grim and suddenly worn looking.

“As it is, he’s not dead yet,” she told him softly.

His ice-blue eyes followed the motion of Rosa’s hands as she pulled away the last of the unneeded clothing. Carefully she brought out the pair of boxer shorts, keeping them folded in attempt to keep their true identity concealed.

Fingers trembling slightly, she placed the square of cloth on the Black Mage’s chest. Instantly, a rush of vast energy shook her body. Her eyes widened as she fought to grasp the unexpected welling of holy magics that leapt to her command through the weave of the fabric under her hand.

The nature of the magic was unlike anything she had ever felt before. The flow of the energy was so intricate and immense that it took every ounce of her concentration to focus it upon the wounded boy at her side.

At first, she feared that the energy would not bend to her will. But the moment the holy light touched the Crystal-marred victim, a ripple of transformation spread across the young Black Mage. Pale skin began to wash itself of the dark-rended chasms as if they were nothing more than streaks of dirt… the white becoming smooth and unmarked, a soft color returning to the flesh.

The red-haired White Mage was staring, looking shaken.

Rosa couldn’t help but to feel the same.

No wonder it took three White Mages to control the healing process… I’ve never felt anything like that — ever!

She rocked back on her heels as the final trickle of power faded. Hands still shaking, her eyes never left the unmarked face of the young Black Mage. Though he did not wake, his breathing was relaxed and his expression was one of peaceful sleep.

“I… I’ll send someone to find the first available sleeping quarters. He doesn’t need to remain here in the sickrooms,” Rosa’s voice sounded thin to her ears. She rose slowly to her feet, gazing on the still-stricken White Mage. “I trust that you will see to his well-being from here?”

“Yeah…” he answered, his face struggling to harden itself.

Not even a word of thanks, eh? He’s a hard case to crack…

Rosa simply nodded and turned to make her way back to the door.

I really need to talk to Uncle Fu about this… so much power locked into such a small thing… I thought it was impossible to…

“Hey..!” the White Mage called to her just as she reached the doorway.

“Yes?” the young Queen turned to address him.

There was a strange look on his face as he peered across the room. Nothing like the glare of fury that he had first met her with.

Maybe…. maybe he is going to thank me?

Rosa blinked back at him, waiting calmly.

“Is…” the White Mage squinted. Then he pointed slowly towards Rosa’s hand, “Isn’t that a pair of boxer shorts?”

The only sound left to the room was FuSoYa’s low chuckle.

Ch4-5 Sticks and Stones

‘He’s even more familiar when he’s smiling… Why do I keep getting the feeling that I’ve known him before?’

“Hey, Wescott!”

Oh no… not them… not now!

Chase’s step faltered at the sound of the snide, familiar voice calling his name. With a spilt-second decision, the boy clutched the folded green cloth in his arms and forced himself to keep walking as if he hadn’t heard.

I have to get Ben’s cloak back to him – I know he’s been waiting on it all day!

This only earned him a sharp, painful crack to the head as one of the other pages let a stone fly from his slingshot. Chase’s vision swam in multi-colored waves as he fought to choke down the cry of pain and hot tears that leapt into his eyes.

“Nice shot, Dival!”The sound of the other boys’ cruel laughter was distant even though they were drawing closer. The next voice that sounded was right next to his ear. Chase bit down on his bottom lip.

I won’t cry… it hurts but I can’t let them see me cry!

“That’ll teach him to ignore us!”

“Yeah, you trying to avoid us, Wescott?”

A pair of hands shoved him roughly backwards. He might have been able to catch himself if his mind wasn’t still reeling from the blow he had just taken. Chase ended up sprawled in the dust, arms still wrapped protectively around the cloak.

“Where have you been for the past two days? Hiding?”

Chase’s eyes cracked open slowly, his vision shimmering into wavery focus. After a few trial blinks, the golden sheen narrowed at the three boys that stood jeering over him.

They were pages who lived in his Quarter. All three were a few years older than Chase, which made them a good bit larger. Their age gave them an edge on physical battle since they had been in sword training longer than he had. Loric, the group’s leader, would soon be old enough to move up in status from a Page to a Squire.

Chase wasn’t the only page they picked on. He was just their favorite target.

The rumors about the strange properties of his golden eyes often left Chase a victim of other people’s disdain. He had no real friends since none of the other pages wanted to be caught talking with him. Loric had made it very plain that anyone who associated with the “freak-boy” would be labeled a freak themselves. Since the rest of the pages didn’t want to give Loric’s group any more reason to pick on them than they already did, none of the other boys associated with Chase except for when they were forced to.

Why… now? Why couldn’t you have waited until I got my cleaning done?

“Yeah, where have you been? We missed your daily contributions to our chore list,” Loric’s fair hair slipped down over his eyes as he leaned forward and sneered in Chase’s face.

“You mean you’ve actually had to do your own work for a change?” Chase quipped back. He wasn’t sure what possessed him to get smart with the other boys. But just as suddenly as the words erupted from his mouth, his heart sank straight into his feet in cold realization.

“Yeah, too bad for you!”

Oh no!

Instantly, Chase found himself being dragged up off his feet by a strong yank on the front of his collar. The boy gave a strangled choke as he attempted to squirm his way out of the rough hold.

No! Not the cloak!

In response, one of the other boys grabbed him from behind. The third page began to grab fistfuls of the green cloak that was still clutched to Chase’s chest, jerking on it so hard that it nearly pulled him back to the ground.

“No! Stoppit! Leave Master’s cloak alone!” Chase grappled with all of his meager strength to keep hold of the heavy material.

“Master, eh? So’s that where you’ve been?” Loric prodded, giving Chase a final shove.

The boy landed backward on the ground, still fighting to hold on to the cloak. A second set of hands caught the material and began to pull it from the other side. Snide laughter rose as they watched Chase scrabbling to keep his claim.

“They’ve assigned you a ward?” Dival chortled.

“Yeah, probably because they saw how badly he sucked at sword practice and realized he’s only worth a servant’s salt!”

“So you’re thinking you’re better than the rest of us because you got yourself a ward, is that it?” Loric grabbed a fistful of Chase’s hair, pulling the boy’s head back roughly. “Let go of that thing!”

“No!”

“I said let go!” he gave Chase’s head another sharp jerk backwards.

“No!” Chase snarled through clenched teeth. “You don’t want me to do that…”

“Really? And why not?”

“If you mess up this cloak, you’ll be really sorry!”

“Oh, yeah? And why’s that?”

“My Master will get angry!”

“Aaaannnd?” one of the other boys snorted.

“Yeah, seriously. I’m reaaaally scared!” Loric laughed out loud, “What are you gonna do? Go tell on us? Make your “master” come beat us up?”

“I don’t have to tell him… he already knows,” Chase’s face grew grave with warning.

“Riiiight! Like I believe that!”

“Heh… he’s so full of it!”

“Yeah, now you know how his eyes got to be that color!”

Loric shoved Chase face-first into the dirt as the whole group guffawed at their cleverness. Where the clean cloak met the ground, the other boys began to stomp on it and smear it into the dust.

When Chase finally found the strength to push himself up, his face grew instantly horrified. A terrible fear gripped at his chest as his fingers clutched even more tightly to the cloth. Staring down at the huge black marks that now marred the deep forest green, the page fought to blink back tears.

“Why did you do that?” he choked. “I tried to tell you—“

“What? That your “master” would come and give us an ass-whoopin?”

“I sure don’t see him anywhere.”

“Hey… look there!” One of the pages pointed, then chortled as the group jerked their heads in the direction indicated. “Oh, wait… that’s just a tree!”

The rest of the boys laughed.

“Corbain, you suck!”

“Yeah man… that wasn’t cool!”

A disparaging look filtered over Chase’s face.

Maybe it’s true…

He coughed, attempting to brush the dirt from his face.

Ben won’t come.

Then he looked at the cloth where it lay crumpled upon the ground.

He is Golbez, after all… I don’t know if he really cares.

Anger and pain began to well up within him.

At least, not until I take the cloak back to him and try to explain what happened.

Anger at Loric and his friends for always picking at him… and for ruining his chance to prove his worth to someone like King Cecil’s brother.

Then I’ll be the one who gets in trouble! I bet Ben will send me away for sure now!

Something about that idea hurt him terribly.

And I didn’t even have a chance to find out why he feels so… familiar…

“Go ahead…” Loric jeered. “Cry, little baby!”

“Cry! Cry! Cry!!” Corbain taunted.

Chase’s eyes narrowed.

I’ll show you cry!

It happened so fast, Chase hardly had a chance to keep up with himself. He was on his feet, more steady in step than he had a right to be, lunging forward at a blinding speed. He had never felt such a strange rush of strength and power. His arm swung forward by instinct.

The sound of a sharp crack echoed off the trees as Chase’s fist slammed straight into Loric’s nose.

The other two boys stared in stunned silence as their leader staggered backward, clutching his nose, streams of crimson seeping out from between his fingers. Chase also stumbled backward, eyes round with shock, his face painted a picture of absolute surprise.
Then he gaped down at his own balled-up fist.

How did I..?

There was no time for questions. As Loric’s eyes shifted in rage, Chase realized his sudden danger.

“You little dog-bastard! You are so dead!”

Chase could feel his breath coming in hoarse rasps of fear. He could hear the other two boys moving in on him from behind.

“When they find you….” Loric took a slow step forward, “You’re gonna be so messed up that they’ll have to send you back to your ‘master’ piece by piece!”

“That won’t be necessary.”

All heads turned at the sound of the cold, raw power. The deep-throated voice resounded into what seemed infinity, causing even Chase’s jaw to drop. The other pages simply stared, frozen.

“B-Ben?!” The choked shock in Chase’s mind faded away as an exhilarated disbelief replaced it.

The big Half-Lunar was leaning casually against the side of the very tree that Corbain had pointed to earlier. Despite the fact that he had discarded his usual attire for a plain set of tunic and slacks, there was still an air of intimidation churning around him. The dapples of sunlight that slipped through the tree’s branches danced in distorted waves as if shying away from falling upon his shoulders. A flicker of disgruntled light illuminated the depths of his green eyes.

“Oh… Shiva!” Dival blinked.

“Who the hell is that?” Loric rasped.

Chase’s head turned in a deliberate manner, a half smile rising to his lips. “My Master.”

As glad as he was to see Ben, the silent anger upon the Lunar’s face troubled the page.

I… wonder what he’s gonna do to them?

Even though Loric’s group was nothing but a bunch bullies, he certainly didn’t want to see Ben get nasty with them. Chase wasn’t sure exactly what sort of things the wizard would do when he really did get nasty.

The page turned a pleading eye upon Ben, his breath coming in shallow gasps.

“Hey there, Chase!” The green eyes flickered to land upon the boy’s face, an almost friendly expression greeting him. There was a deeply knowing look on Ben’s face. So deep that it left Chase taken aback.

The boy bowed his head, his own eyes landing upon the spoiled cloak at his feet.

“Are these children giving you trouble?” Ben’s tone grew mocking in a vague manner.

The Half-Lunar hoisted himself up and slowly made his way towards where the boys were standing. Loric fought unsuccessfully to keep his ground as the other two pages stumbled back. Leaning down, Ben caught the folds of his cloak in one hand and began to fish it out of the dirt.

“What’s becoming of kids these days? They’ve got nothing better to do, I suppose.” A musing expression crossed the wizard’s face as he dropped his gaze upon the three pages, “Maybe I should have a talk with the Headmaster to see that you three are given more things to fill up your time. And to be sure that you are the ones doing your own chores. After all… idle young minds… are such a waste.”

Though the day had been quite still all afternoon, a shifting flower-scented breeze drew past them. With a flick of his wrist, Ben shook out his cloak, dust coloring the air dry. Chase blinked once. Then again. His mouth opened soundlessly. He knew the others behind him had to be doing the same.

Once the dust cleared, Ben cast the cloak over one shoulder. The cloth didn’t so much as have a single speck of dirt on it. In fact, it looked cleaner now than it had been when Chase had fetched it from the laundry.

“Eh…?” Ben arched one eyebrow, running an eye of disapproval over the three pages.

Chase turned to look at them, too. Then he gave a squeaking little choke.

It was as if all the stains and grime that had been inflicted upon Ben’s green cloak had somehow transferred themselves to the three pages’ clothes. It looked like Loric’s group had trudged straight through a mud pit ten times over, and then rolled around in the road-dust that gathered on the streets of Baron.

“That is truly a shame… you boys can’t be seen that way in public!” The big Half-Lunar crossed his arms in front of his chest in a commanding way. Ben ignored the fact that one of the boys looked as if he was about to pass out right there.

Chase couldn’t help the hint of laughter that rose in his throat.

At the sound, Ben turned his own slight smirk on the page. Then gave him a sly wink.

“Take them off,” the wizard’s hand reached out in a demanding manner, pointing out the three pages’ clothes.

“Wha…..?” Loric breathed, face growing pale under the mud splotches.

“You heard me. The royal pages of Baron can’t be seen in such a mortifying state,” Ben’s smirk grew larger. “Take those clothes off! It’s terribly offending!”

The other two boys were gaping.

“And I have to tell you one thing,” the Half-Lunar leaned forward, green eyes glowing slightly in the reflection of sunlight. “You don’t want to offend me.”

Chase bit his lip. He couldn’t decide whether to laugh out loud or feel sorry for the other boys. But it was the funniest thing ever to watch Loric’s group strip down to nothing more than underwear.

“Now fold them up nice and neat…”

The boys did so quickly, shivering as the strange breeze drew about them, brushing past their bare skin.

“I want you to pick them up and carry them all the way back to your quarters.”

Chase’s mouth fell open, thinking about how many people – including all the pages in the Quarters – who would see them. One of the boys began to cry in mortification.

Yeah… it’s your turn!

The Half-Lunar’s smirk grew even wider. “Once you’ve cleaned up, I’ll arrange it so that the Headmaster will have a good many tasks to keep you company for the rest of the night.”

Loric’s face was brilliant crimson. His hands were shaking where they gripped his clothes to his chest.

“Okay, then,” Ben clapped his hands together in a cheerful way. “You’re dismissed!”

Just as the boys turned to dart away, the wizard’s voice rose again, deep with warning.

“Oh, and just in case you’re thinking of doing anything other than what I told you to do…” Ben wrinkled his nose. “I wouldn’t try it. Because I’ll know. Believe me… there are worse things that can happen… much worse…”

Chase watched the mostly-bare backsides of the boys as they retreated into the bushes, running at top speed. Once they were far out of range, one hand flew up to cover his face, laughter finally escaping him.

“I never seen anything soooo funny! That was great..! That was–”

A strange, warm sound shifted at his side, causing Chase to stop with a quick breath. Looking up, he realized that it was the sound of Ben’s laughter. He had never heard Ben laugh before – not so freely.

“Yeah… did you see their faces when I told them to carry their clothes all the way to their rooms?” The wizard’s face was animated with mirth. The Half-Lunar looked like a totally different person when he laughed.

Seeing that Chase had stopped laughing, the Half-Lunar’s expression grew concerned. “What’s… wrong? Did I do something I shouldn’t have?”

“Uh?” the boy shook his head. “N-no… it was just…”

He’s even more familiar when he’s smiling… Why do I keep getting the feeling that I’ve known him before? I wish I could remember…

“They didn’t hurt you did they?” Ben asked.

“No… not really.”

There was a long silence as the breeze flapped through the loose cloth of the green cloak.

Finally Chase lifted his gaze. “Thank you for coming.”

“You didn’t think I would?”

“No one ever has before.”

Ben gave a deep grunt, “You think that I’m gonna let it get around that ‘Master Golbez’ allows his ‘servants’ to get beat up on?”

A quirky smile rose to Chase’s face. “I suppose not?”

Ben’s face broke out in a large lop-sided grin.

With a short pause, the page glanced down, looking at his hand. It was still throbbing from where he had struck Loric earlier. Curiosity tickled the back of his mind.

“Say… Ben?”

“Hun?”

“Was that… you?”

“Was what me?”

Chase lifted his hand to show the Half-Lunar. “You know… when I punched Loric? I’ve never done anything like that before!”

“Is that so? You have good punching form,” the wizard replied drolly.

“But was that something you… er… you know… helped me to do?” the boy’s eyebrows lifted way up.

“Eh?” Ben blinked with a blank, dumb expression on his face. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Ch4-6 Unanswered Call

“I’m sorry. Rydia was unable to answer your call.”

The ground cracked sharply, dropping away under his feet.

An expanse of darkness yawned beneath him, spiraling downward into a fiery pit. The stone heaved up, tall above his head, buckling and distorted. He could feel the hissing heat rising around him. It came from below, where streams of molten rock squeezed up from the fissures within the ground.

The earth rebuked the city which sat trembling upon its shoulders.

Buildings crumpled, shattering across the ground. Some were ripped apart as if stone was merely child’s clay. The shadow of the castle began to lean as the towers swayed dangerously overhead. The sound of screaming was distant to his ears. The vision of people scattering through the broken streets reflected in an underwater slow-motion.

Pale recognition froze the blood in his veins. He knew this place… it was one of Baron’s sister cities… a place of great peace and tranquility. A city that now lay in shattered pieces before his very eyes.

No… not Troia, too..!

Through the cries of the people, he heard someone call his name.

“Cecil?”

The world around him rippled, fluttering across his vision as the voice echoed in his ears.

That sounds like…

“Cecil, love?”

Rosa? But what is she doing here…?

“Cecil… wake up!”

Uh…?

Realization dawned upon him as the images of destruction peeled away from his senses. A hazy vision rose to take its place… his eyes opened slowly to the concerned expression of his wife standing over him.

It was… a dream?

“Cecil, are you okay?” He felt the cool of her hand on his heated forehead.

Another dream…

“Rosa… I’m…” His green eyes blinked, focusing slowly.

What do I tell her? That I dreamt of the destruction of the city of Troia?

Not waiting for his answer, she leaned over and placed a cool kiss on his cheek. “You’re always my sleepy-head, aren’t you? I’m sorry to wake you, dear. But there’s someone important here to see you.”

“Oh..?” Cecil sat up slowly, pulling the tangle of blankets from around him. “How important?”

“Pretty important. From the Land of Summoned Monsters,” Rosa’s voice was soft and strained.

“Ah! Rydia’s finally arrived?” Crossing the room, the Paladin began to rummage for a proper set of unwrinkled clothes.

“Actually…”

Cecil peered over one shoulder, “Actually?”

“No.”

He squinted, hand paused in the motion of selecting a clean shirt. “What do you mean…?”

Rosa slowly shook her head, “I don’t know, Cecil. Something might have happened… but I didn’t stop to hear the full story before coming to get you. I think you need to hear the details for yourself.”

Concern flooded his face instantly. The young King gave a short nod, “Go ahead and tell them I’m coming right down… just let me get a quick change here.”

One hand reached over to touch the top of his wrist with a comforting motion as she nodded. Without further words, Rosa made her way out of the royal bedchambers.

Shiva… what else can go wrong?

Cecil strode into the adjoining bathing room, taking a moment to splash water over his face. A glance in the mirror found a worn, flushed image reflecting back at him.

The ship I sent to Troia still hasn’t returned… And now I have a dream of the city being destroyed in an earthquake of unimaginable size…

No longer being picky, the Paladin drew out the first set of clothes that he could find. He deposited his current rumpled outfit in the corner and began a fast change.

Our meetings are practically going nowhere. No one can seem to agree on a direct course of action for our kingdoms as a whole. And Edge… he’s simply impossible. He refuses to do anything as long as Golbez is present.

The fingers of one hand raked quickly through his tousled hair as he took one last glance at himself in the dressing mirror.

And it’s like walking on glass to keep Golbez from making a bowl of Ninja Crispies a part of his balanced breakfast. I swear sometimes it’s so tempting to let the two of them just have it out… if only to get it out of their system. But I doubt that’s going to help anything.

Shrugging a cloak over his shoulders, Cecil strode quickly through the doorway and down the hall. Eyes straight ahead, he hardly noticed the people he passed on his way to the throne room.

And now Rydia hasn’t come…

He fought back the sense of frustration and hopelessness.

If anyone could have gotten through to Edge, it would have been Rydia. I really needed her to be here to back me up on this. Without her… I don’t know what I’m going to do…

His arms tensed as he pressed his palms against the tall wooden doors, pushing them open.

There’s so little time… so little time…

The air in the throne room was so thick with tension it almost choked him to breathe. Keeping his eyes focused on the throne ahead, Cecil strode down the carpeted path and up the stairs. Only when he turned to address the room did he take note of who stood present.

Rosa was to one side of the dais, a deeply troubled look on her face. Though her shoulders were held high, the way she fidgeted with her hands told the story of her worry.

Surprisingly enough, Golbez had positioned himself not far behind her. His face was serious and strangely protective. It was a look that Cecil had never seen on his brother’s face before. And something about it left the Paladin with more questions than answers.

Edge stood just a few steps down to the left, looking to be on the brink of absolute nervous breakdown. Kain had one large hand fixed on the ninja’s shoulder. Cecil couldn’t tell if it was to steady the king… or to keep him held in place.

A stranger stood upon the carpet before the throne. As Cecil’s eyes brushed over him, he bowed his head with a polite greeting.

“Your Majesty,” Kain began slowly.

It’s always so strange to hear Kain call me that… but in the face of royal visitors, I suppose nothing can be done for it.

Cecil’s eyes flickered to the Dragoon questioningly.

“This is Prince Edhan from the Land of Summon Monsters,” the Captain noted without flourish. “And a personal friend of Lady Rydia’s.”

Edge’s eyes narrowed, one fist balling tightly at his side.

“I see,” Cecil bowed his head slowly. “Welcome, Your Highness to the Kingdom of Baron. We are honored to make your acquaintance.”

“I am likewise honored, King Cecil,” the man straightened slowly. His strange, violet eyes fell heavily upon the Paladin. “I have heard so much about you… and all of Rydia’s companions from the Overworld. It’s with much sorrow that I come to you under such circumstances.”

“How is Rydia?” Cecil asked, trying to edge the worry out of his voice.

Edhan’s face grew unreadable.

“Forgive me for asking… as happy as we are to have you here with us, I was hoping that Rydia would respond to my sendings as well.”

The prince peered down uncomfortably. There was a long moment of silence before he finally spoke again, “I’m sorry. Rydia was unable to answer your call. I’ve come in her stead… bearing ill news.”

“What?” Edge’s eyes were so round they seemed ready to pop. “What the hell you mean by that? She is ‘unable to answer’ the call? Why?”

“Now Edge…” Kain murmured, tightening his grip on the ninja’s arm.

“Please… Prince Edhan… continue?” Cecil leaned back on his heels, bracing himself. The pit of his stomach churned in unease. The grave light in his eyes fought to cover his apprehension.

“Your Majesty… I came with the news as soon as I heard you had summoned for her…” Edhan’s face shifted in pain. “Rydia has been taken.”

“T-taken?” Edge choked.

“What…. do you mean taken?” Rosa’s eyes widened, one hand reaching up to touch her chin in a motion of shock.

The fiery-haired prince took a slow breath. “I do not know who the enemy was. But there were two of them. Both were women… we met them at the entrance of the Sealed Cave.”

A lump rose in Cecil’s throat. “What… happened?”

“They had somehow broken the seal… I never learned how…” Edhan shook his head, looking as if he was picking his words very carefully. “By the time that we arrived, they had already acquired the Dark Crystal that is kept within the cave.”

“Two of them? Women? Are you certain of this?” Golbez’s voice suddenly jolted through the chamber.

Cecil turned with a hint of surprise. His brother tended to be silent more often than not. But the pressed expression on his face spoke volumes of what might have been churning through the Master Wizard’s mind.

“Yes…” the Prince nodded.

“What else did you see..? Did they have another Crystal?”

Edhan froze for a moment. His strange eyes blinked before he responded, “As a matter of fact… yes. How did you know?”

Incrytan…” Golbez breathed slowly.

The word sent prickles up Cecil’s arms.

“I’m… sorry?” the Prince gave the Half-Lunar a strange look.

“It would seem… that the women you met at the Sealed Cave are the very people that we are seeking to find,” Cecil answered slowly, trying to explain the best that he could. “One of the Crystals they have in their position belongs to my brother.”

“Ah… I see…”

“However, what happened when you met them at the Cave?” the Paladin asked shortly.

“Rydia and I… we challenged them, of course. After all, it’s our duty to protect the Dark Crystals.” The young prince frowned, “The power that they had between the two of them was extraordinary. Maybe it was the Crystals… I don’t know. But… we… lost the battle…”

Edge’s face was awash with horror. “What… happened to Rydia?”

“I thought they were going to kill her at first. But the younger woman — the one with white hair — she pleaded for Rydia’s life. So they took her captive instead,” Edhan replied, his voice marked with deep shame. “I’m sorry…”

Golbez’s words rasped slowly, “Did you say… a younger woman… with white hair?”

“Yes.”

“Are you certain?”

“Why, yes… I am. She was one that I did get a good look at,” Edhan nodded slowly.

The Master Wizard closed his mouth, the expression on his face churning like a stormcloud.

“No… no… Rydia..!” the overwhelming anguish of the Ninja King echoed through the Baronian throne room. Jerking away from Kain’s grasp, Edge turned on his heel and dodged out the doors.

“Hey! Wait… Edge!” Kain called with a frustrated demand.

As the Dragoon moved to follow, Cecil found his own voice rising. “No Kain. Let him go.”

Kain froze, peering back at the Paladin with questioning eyes.

Slumping down on his throne, Cecil could feel the weight of his worries doubling upon his shoulders. “Just… let him go.”

Ch4-7 Three’s A Crowd

Palom leaned back, tapping his chin. “Then, why don’t you just stowaway?”

“Didya check it out?”

“What?”

“It was like… BOO-YA!”

“Palom… you’re not making any sense,” Porom frowned from behind the large sack she was carrying. Being very careful not to slip up on the steep incline of the airship ramp, she turned her attention back to her task with a hint of irritation.

Her brother was carrying a stack of tall boxes, which balanced precariously in his arms. It was all too obvious that he was trying to tote far too many at once… but for the sake of showing off, Palom would go to any length.

“I’m talking about King Edge, man…” the boy chortled, shifting the weight of the boxes in his arms.

“What about him…?” Porom grumbled. “Palom… come on… move up. This sack is heavy!”

“Hey, I’m trying here!”

“Serves you right for picking up more than you can carry.”

“Hey, I can handle it. No sweat.”

“Right…” she huffed. “So what about King Edge?”

“Heh… I knew you were interested.”

Porom huffed, “Not really. But since he’s going to be one of my traveling companions, I think I should know.”

“Excuses… excuses… face it, you just love a good gossip!”

“That is not true!” she gave her brother a sharp nudge in the back. “You started talking about it first!”

“Eh! Eh! I’m gonna drop one, Porom! Don’t do that!” Palom gave a quick glance over the railing of the ship.

“So..?”

“So… well… Edge. It’s like night and day with him. Didn’t you see?” the Black Mage smirked. “Ever since he found out that Rydia was in trouble.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, for starters… I heard Cecil was about to pull his hair out trying to get Edge to agree to any plan that had anything to do with Golbez.” The boy chirped, making kissy faces, “As soon as Edge found out that Rydia was in trouble, he was so totally ready to be out the door. Golbez or not.”

“Heheh… really?”

“It must be looove, I tell you!”

“Yeah, that’s so romantic!” she sighed.

“You would think so,” the boy grumbled.

“Though, I didn’t know King Edge had such reservations about working with Master Golbez,” Porom mused quietly.

“Hey, don’t you?” Palom scowled.

“Well… I don’t know. I really haven’t met him.”

“Porom! Does it matter? The guy’s a scum – Cecil’s brother or not!”

“The scum that happened to personally heal us… and create the artifact that would heal the rest of the Mysidian population of the wounds the Water Crystal made?” she noted. “Not to mention he was the one who King Cecil himself said aided him in defeating the Elemental Dragon that attacked us?”

“Well…” the boy paused, leaning the weight of his boxes up on the railing for a moment of rest, “Just because he does a couple so-called good things doesn’t mean he’s really not just bad-guy scum. I don’t really trust him… and I hate it that you have to be around him… when I can’t go to make su—“

“Paaaalom,” the girl rolled her eyes. “We’ve been over this before… how many times?”

“I know… I know. They need you in the party cuz you’re a White Mage,” he grumbled. “But why couldn’t I go too? I’m a Black Mage! I could help…”

“They already have a Master Wizard… that’s why,” Porom informed him.

“Yeah, but what happens when your Master Wizard turns on you an–”

“Palom!” she grated.

“Just saying…”

“You have no trust in anyone, do you?” Porom huffed. She plopped the sack down on the ship’s planking, near the door to the storage compartment.

“Not in Golbez. No.”

“I’ve seen him here and there in the castle. He doesn’t seem so bad,” the girl frowned. “Besides, don’t you trust King Cecil’s judgment on the matter?”

“Dude… Cecil can make mistakes too. This is his brother,” Palom rearranged the boxes, trying to make it easier for him to carry.

“Yes, and..?” she brushed a stray lock of brown hair from her eyes, blinking up.

“For all we know, he could just be treating Golbez this way out of wishful thinking.”

“Huh?”

“You know… like Cecil really wants his brother to be a good guy… so he tries to turn the tables that way. Even when Golbez really hasn’t changed at all.”

“Palom! That’s terrible. You’ve been reading too many of those silly comic books!”

“Hey,” the boy grimaced. “It could happen, right?”

“I don’t think so…” Porom’s eyes narrowed. “You need some help with those?”

“Nah… I got it…”

“Really? You don’t look like you got it…”

“Bah… I’ve got–”

Just as the boy lifted the boxes, a miscalculation in balance sent the furthest one sliding off and toppling down over the airship rail.

“Aww, crap!” Palom hissed, stacking the rest of the boxes down on the planked floor.

“Was something breakable in there?” Porom was peering over the railing in dismay.

“I have no idea…!”

“Cecil’s going to have your head if it was…” she chided.

“Awww… hush, Porom!” the boy grumbled, taking the run down the loading ramp in great leaps and bounds. There was a half-frantic look on his face as he dodged around the crates and boxes that dappled the grounds near the belly of the great ship.

Porom followed after him at a slower pace. “If it’s fallen, it’s fallen. There’s no point in breaking your neck to run to it.”

Not heeding the warning of his sister, the Black Mage stumbled over randomly scattered ship parts and sacks, skidding to a stop as he rounded the corner of one last stack of crates. Porom came to an abrupt stop, giving a quiet yelp as she almost collided with his back.

“What is–” she began in protest. She stopped in mid-question as her eyes focused around her brother’s shoulder, on the fallen box.

It was in the hands of a little, sandy-haired boy.

He looked to be a good bit younger than they were – maybe 7 or 8 years old — and was dressed down in the simple garb of a Baronian page. It was hard to tell if the boy had caught the box… or had just picked it up. His strange, golden-colored eyes peered down at it with an expression of puzzlement before they turned to observe the twin mages with a blink.

Porom felt herself shiver.

For a moment, the three simply peered at each other. Finally, the strange little boy spoke.

“Hi… did you drop this box? I saw it fall.”

“Uh… yeah…” Palom replied. There was a slight edge in his voice that hinted his own wariness towards the child. “That’s mine.”

“Did it hit the ground?” Porom added with a tone of worry.

“Oh, no. It fell into the tarps over there,” the boy pointed cheerfully. Sure enough, there was a pile of rough-hewn cloth sitting next to the side of the airship.

“Shiva… what luck!” Palom gave a half grin. “I was scared I–”

“Hey… aren’t you…!” the little boy suddenly stuttered, face growing blank with amazement.

“Um…?” Porom squinted in uncertainty.

“You’re… … ..?”

“The Mysidian Genius, Palom? That’s right!” the Black Mage smirked, elbowing his sister. “See there, I told you that my name would get around in time! Famous… just like Master Tellah was!”

“I’m not sure you’d want to be famous in the same way as Master Tellah was…” she murmured.

“Noooo…” the boy shook his head slowly. “You’re the ones that Ben healed… up in King Cecil’s room!”

Palom’s mouth clomped shut with a put-out look.

“I’m afraid you must be mistaken… I was told that we were healed by Master Golbez,” Porom answered, perking forward in interest.

“That’s right,” he nodded quickly. “But his real name is Ben.

“Ben?” she blinked.

“Oh really? I never heard anything like that,” Palom frowned slowly. He reached out and took the box from the page’s hands.

“Have you ever talked to him?” the boy quipped.

“Well… no…”

“Then he never had a chance to tell you.”

Porom put a finger to her chin, “How do you know?”

“Oh, me? Well, I’m Ben’s page!” he replied with a hint of pride.

“Is that so..?” Palom didn’t look convinced.

The boy nodded.

“That’s right… I think I have seen you around before,” Porom blinked before nodding her head once politely. “I’m sorry… my name is Porom. And this is my brother Palom.”

“I’m Chase,” the boy smiled brightly. “And… You come from Mysidia, right? You’re the Twin Mages that traveled to the top of Mt. Ordeals with King Cecil!?”

“Ah ha! So you have heard my name!” Palom chortled.

“Why, of course!” Chase looked at him with excitement, “All the pages in Baron know who you two are!”

“Heh… I think I like this kid…”

“I bet it was super-cool to be there when King Cecil become a Paladin!” The page leaned forward, making wiggly motions with his fingers, “Did you really get to see him fight a shadow of his Dark Knight self and a hundred and fifty deadly dark-specters?”

“What!?” Porom blinked.

“No way! Who told you that?” Palom put a hand on one hip. “There were no less than two-hundred!”

“Palom!”

There was a look in Chase’s eyes that spoke of sudden disbelief.

The Black Mage only grinned widely. “Okay… okay…”

“No, but it was very cool… King Cecil’s a great man,” Porom tilted her head. “He’s always been very kind to us. That’s why I hope I can serve him well on this journey.”

You’re going with him?” Chase blinked up at her.

She nodded, “They needed an extra White Mage… I think King Cecil wants Queen Rosa to stay here and run the kingdom in his absence. So the Elder suggested I could go along… as part of my training.”

“Wow… you’re lucky…” the boy replied, face suddenly growing downcast.

“Yeah, I know! Isn’t she?” Palom grumbled.

“Why… what’s wrong?” Porom wrinkled her brow at the page’s expression.

“Just…” Chase blinked down, “King Cecil probably won’t let me… But… But, I have to go with Ben.”

Palom turned to look at the boy with a strange expression. Porom found her face mirroring her brother’s. There was something in the boy’s voice… in his eyes… that left prickles of importance over their skin.

When Porom next spoke, her mouth was dry. Why she did not think to challenge the boy’s statement, she didn’t know. But something inside of her was shaken by the light behind the golden eyes.

It was as if Chase’s words represented the unfaultable truth.

“Have you… talked to Master Golbez about it?”

“No…” the page looked down at his feet. “King Cecil is the one who picks who gets to go. And I wouldn’t want to start any trouble. Ben’s already pretty worried.”

Palom leaned back, tapping his chin. “Then, why don’t you just stowaway?”

Chase’s eyes grew round.

“Palom! Don’t fill his head with improper ideas!” Porom scowled.

“No… I’m serious!” the Black Mage spread his hands innocently. “Dude… check this! King Cecil won’t say yes. You don’t want to rock the boat with Golbez. So just pack your things and hide away somewhere on the ship! If you don’t come out till after it’s in the air for a long time… they can’t possibly send you back home, right?”

“Well… I…” the boy swallowed.

“I’m not going to just sit here and listen to this!” Porom protested.

“So cover your ears,” Palom snurged back at her.

“Hey!”

“Hey, nothing!” he retorted. “You heard him… he needs to get on that ship. So, tell me, do you got a better idea?”

“Well… no… but… he could get in trouble?”

“With Cecil?” Palom wrinkled his nose. “Come on… give me a break! Cecil wouldn’t do anything to a little kid!”

Chase’s mouth had turned into a little letter “o”.

“It’s true! I can tell you from experience!” the Black Mage smirked.

“I still don’t know if it’s a good idea,” she shook her head.

“Of course it is!” Palom pointed. “You know how those adults are! They never listen to anything until it’s too late.”

The page nodded slowly, face pleading, “It’s really really important…”

“I believe you…” Porom’s expression was troubled.

“And hey, if you’re that worried, then help him out!” her brother nudged her. “You’re gonna be on that ship, too. Right?”

Chase blinked at her, looking hopeful.

“Well, I… yeah…” she stuttered.

“So, there you have it!” Palom intoned victoriously.

“But… I don’t know anything about… stowing away?” Chase frowned slowly.

“Heeeey, no problem!” the Black Mage smirked, putting one arm around the page’s shoulders in a friendly manner. “Just come along with me… let the Master of Mayhem show you how!”

“Master of Mayhem?” Porom rolled her eyes. “Light help us…”

She reluctantly trotted after them, a sinking feeling growing in the pit of her stomach with each step.