Ch5-1 O.M.E.G.A.

Is this man… O.M.E.G.A.?

The blue chamber was far colder than any other room that Joran had passed through.

I must be getting closer…

One hand closed around the collar of her fur-lined jacket. The other trembled with chill and a sense of excitement. Her knuckles were white as she gripped the small silver device, transparent prints marking the slick, reflective surface where her fingertips met the metal.

I’m glad I thought to dress warm for this. I didn’t know the tower would be so frigid.

Joran picked her footing carefully. The stone was slippery and blanketed with spongy sea-plants. Small tide pools of salt water dotted the floor where the walls had caved in under the waves. From every side, there was the soft hissing sound of the ocean.

Pren said this place was once a floating sky-fortress…

Her hand traced the patterns of tiling along the walls. At one time, it might have been a stream of lights built into the floor for illumination. There seemed to have been very few, if any, windows structured into the hallways themselves.

Zot..? I think that was the name of it. Built by our people, there’s no doubt. This was once Lunarian technology.

She hopped over a pile of fallen debris, careful to hold her balance. One eye was constantly on the device in her hand. A tiny white dot flashed slowly on and off, a location marker.

My people had to have been on this world. Though… why hasn’t anyone talked bout the Lunarians coming to the Blue Planet? Even Master FuSoYa is close-lipped about it.

Joran frowned slowly.

It looks like this place went through some sort of battle.

She brushed away some of the grime from the stones nearest her.

A floating fortress… that fell into the sea. I wonder what really happened?

She wiped the sea water off on her hide trousers and continued on. The chill was beginning to make its way through her deeply lined furs.

And what happened between the humans and Lunarians? Why did KluYa come down here to the Blue Planet? It’s never talked of so plainly, but I know it happened.

Joran’s green eyes focused back on the device in her hand. Then she glanced up at the tall set of doors that were blocking her passage.

It had to have happened. After all, Golbez has admitted that he has half-Human blood.

She pressed slowly on the doors, testing the strength of the structures around it. It gave a low creak, but did not budge.

But this tower… the way it feels… it was certainly a place built for war. Not for cultural observation.

Her eyes turned to study the small, dark plate on the wall next to the doorway. At one time, it looked to have been a power supply that may have opened and closed the door. Now, however, it was lifeless and black. Like the rest of the tower’s mechanisms.

This is all so confusing. And it’s all so hush-hush. Something just doesn’t feel right about the whole deal.

Fishing around in one pocket, Joran pulled out a second device. It was small and square with a thin, red wire sticking from one corner.

But this is what I’m here to do…

Clicking open the tiny control panel at the bottom of the plate on the wall, she attached the wire into one of the small, marked holes. Punching a few quick keys on the device, it gave a whirring sound, as the lights on the door plate hummed to life.

Sparrow said that I had to find O.M.E.G.A.

Carefully, Joran typed in the key-code that was given to her by the dark-haired girl upon her departure. It was a simple, four-digit number… but one that she had repeated to herself many times over as she made her way through the tower’s chambers.

2… 9… 4… 3… Enter.

She held her breath, eyes wide and focused upon the doorway. Silence bore down on her as the lights capered between the plate and the device in her hand.

Come on… open… please…!

A bright green acceptance light flashed on the wall plate and with a huge, grating sound, the door folded back. It only managed to open half-way before it jammed with a heavy clang, stopping dead in its motion. Joran quickly detached the device from the wall, eyes staring at the newly-created fissure.

That was really the door code! I can’t believe it!

It wasn’t that she thought Sparrow would have sent her out on such a search without the proper information. But the whole idea of creeping through a sunken ruin of once-great Lunarian technology was somehow both frightening and exhilarating.

And to have actually had a real code to the door… that really worked! It’s just… wow!

A cloud of cold-steam issued from the room in front of her. The moisture on her hair turned to shimmering ice crystals instantly. Ancient Lunarian runes marked the threshold of the doorway, their power long since faded with time. Something about the script washed away Joran’s thoughts of triumph.

Light… what did they keep in here? To need warding runes of that kind of power…

She swallowed, her eyes aching against the frigid air that poured out of the dark, ovular chamber. Her heart began to drum in her chest as she forced one foot in front of the other. There was no doubt that what she had come for was located within that room.

Her breath steamed in front of her in long white plumes. The sound of her footsteps crunched upon the frozen floor-stones. The silence grew unnerving, all sounds of the ocean becoming mute as she passed through the doorway.

What…?

In the center of the room, a pale light flickered.

Stepping closer, Joran could identify the outline of a long, narrow pod-shaped structure.

It’s just like… the sleeping chambers that we used upon the moon. Except…

She reached a hand out to touch its frozen surface. The glass was frosted over, making the contents within impossible to see.

It’s much… larger… than ours was.

Swallowing deeply, Joran took the sleeve of her fur-jacket and wiped away the ice coating on the outside of the pod. Her green eyes reflected in wonder as they fell upon the sleeping form within the tube.

It’s… it’s… some sort of man?

He lay there, suspended in a strange motionless silence. Only the shallow motion of his breath told her that he still lived.

The man was taller than a common Lunarian in stature – he seemed to be built much more like the human people. His hair floated about his face, a strange gradiented tone that started pure black at the roots, fading to pure white at the tips. His expression was calm and serene with sleep, despite the fact that there were two, small metallic plates bolted into the bottom of his left cheek. His right eye was completely concealed by a large black eye patch.

Is this man… O.M.E.G.A.? I thought it would be…

Joran turned to peer at the dimly lit control board for the sleep pod.

…Something more formidable looking…

Her hand paused over the buttons, breath coming in a soft gasp. There was a line of Lunarian script written there – an eerie warning that sent a prickle over the back of her arms.

The tag at the top of the board was cleanly marked — “Project O.M.E.G.A.”.

I guess… it really is…

She began to shift her weight from one foot to the other in apprehension.

But, the warding runes used on this room… I’ve only read about things that powerful.

Her finger paused above the release button.

Still… Sparrow said that we needed to enlist the help of O.M.E.G.A…

Teeth chattering with cold and fear, her eyes flickered back and forth from the face in the glass to the button.

I’ve got to… follow through… with my mission. For Golbez… I’ve got to do this for Golbez…

In a fury of bravado, Joran forced her hand forward, punching the release button in a quick jab. All of the lights upon the control board flashed brightly three times as a high-pitched keening sound filled the room around her.

Some sort of alarm?!

The sound gurgled and choked off into a dull, garbled noise as streams of warming air hissed down from various spots on the ceiling. Weakly, the room began to fill with a dim, callow light as the walls around flickered and faded – only a pale image of what they were originally created to be.

It was as if the whole chamber was going through a rapid period of melt-away. The temperature began to rise as the ice began to stream down the walls in torrents of white slush. The light within the pod itself had changed color.

Joran felt herself backing away from the center of the room, towards the door.

M-maybe this wasn’t such a good idea…!

The surface of the pod began to dematerialize, allowing for the outside air to slowly filter through. The man inside the capsule instantly began to breathe more deeply as his air supply was gradually transferred over to the natural atmosphere.

But I’ve got some time to figure things out before he actually–

Joran startled as she watched one of his hands twitch.

Wha… he’s waking up… already?!

During her experiences with the sleeping pods, it had always taken the Lunarians a good hour of time to begin to function again properly.

It’s not supposed to happen like this… is it?!

The covering of the pod had now completely melted away, leaving only the man laying there. He was dressed in very light clothes, his arms and chest still covered with wired attachments that had monitored his life force during the long sleep.

Now that the air in the room wasn’t so cold, the dampness had settled in, choking the air with uncomfortable stillness. Joran found herself slowly creeping forward in a low crouch, uncertain of what to do next.

His single eye flicked open in an instant, mechanical way. It was eerie… for where the whites of his eye should have been, it was pure green marked with only a slitted black pupil.

Joran jerked back with a gasp. Her throat worked itself in attempt to make a sound.

I shoulda gotten backup for this! I can’t handle this thing on my own if he decides to…

“Uuugh…” he gave a little moan. The single green eye focused, flickering around the room with instant awareness. Then it fell upon her.

She froze, staring back in apprehension. “Ah… ah….”

His arms trembled with weakness as he fought to push himself into a sitting position. A rasping choke racked his frame as he scrubbed his eye with the back of his hand. After a long moment, the man focused on her again.

“What do they put in that sleeping fluid that always leaves your mouth tasting like puke?” his words came in flawless Lunar — despite the fact he looked nothing like one of her people.

Perfect Lunar… except for the last word. She had never heard such a term before.

Joran blinked. “Taste like… what?”

“Nevermind,” he murmured, brushing a hand through his wild hair. Then he shook his head out.

“Um…” she was left in a total blank, uncertain of how to approach the man.

“Okay, so what’s the deal?” he snorted through his nostrils a few times, holding the bridge of his nose. “What does Zemus want from me, now?”

“Zemus?”

“I swear, he just stuffs me in a closet and only wakes me up when he needs something from me.”

“Zemus is… dead.”

The man froze, the single eye turning to stare at her in a hauntingly intense way.

Joran took a few more steps back, running her tongue over her lips.

“Say that… again?”

“Zemus is dead,” she repeated, forcing strength in her words.

His mouth opened as if he meant to say something in return. But all that came was a rasping, chilling laugh. “Oh…. ho…!”

She could only watch him, the pit of her stomach churning at the sound.

“And pray-tell, little girl, how did Zemus meet his fate?” he half-purred.

“It was… was… at the hands of Master FuSoYa–”

“FuSoYa?” he choked a little, the laughter rising in his throat again. “Oh, that rat-bastard… it’s just too precious!”

He knows FuSoYa… and Zemus? I wonder who… who this guy really is?

She felt her knees growing weak.

Regardless of that… I’ve gotta bring him back with me.

One fist balled at her side, fighting to take control of the situation.

Quick… say something… let him know you’re the boss, here!

She jutted her chin out, “And I was the one that released you!”

“Mmmm?” The glance fell back on her again.

“So you have to… to…” her words faltered.

“I have to what?” He leaned forward slowly, the motion was dangerously lithe. There was little doubt that once he regained his strength, he could easily overtake her.

It was obvious by the gleam in his eye that he knew this, too.

“You have to serve me!” Quick as lightning, Joran drew forth Incrytan. Holding it at arm’s length, she made sure that he got a good look at it, her green eyes narrowing.

He paused, peering at the Crystal in a mixture of surprise and apprehension. “Now, now… what an interesting little toy.”

“You know what this is, don’t you?” Joran’s hands shook slightly as she kept Incrytan between herself and the man.

“I have a pretty good idea, yeah. Where did you pick something like that up?” his face had suddenly turned starkly serious.

“Golbez made it. And I aim to destroy it.”

“Golbez…” his voice trailed off into a quiet sound.

“That’s right,” Joran nodded slowly. “And… I’ve been told that I need your help.”

“Help?” he arched an eyebrow.

“Golbez is going to come after this Crystal… and I don’t want him to have it.”

“I see.”

“I… I don’t know what O.M.E.G.A. is… or why you would be the one that I was sent to find… but…”

“Kip,” he quipped softly, a musing light reflecting in his eye.

“What?” Joran blinked at him.

“You can call me Kip.” the man gave a slow smile.

“Ah… Does this mean that you will…”

“Serve you?” he smirked. “No.”

She swallowed.

“But, I might be interested in… cutting a deal.”

“A… deal?”

“That’s right,” Kip’s voice was slick as water. “But first, how about we blow this joint? I can’t say that I have much of a love for Zot, you know?”

“I…” Joran shook her head, then nodded, “I won’t argue with that.”

“Good,” he gave a little laugh, “That’s exactly how I like it.”

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Ch5-2 The Barnburner

“Because… something about this forest speaks to me… There is something here that is very, very wrong. I can feel it.”

“Really? He’s doing it again!” the blue-haired captain growled under her breath. The fingers of one hand drummed in irritation along the airship control panel.

Cecil blinked up from the course chart with a slow frown. “I’m sorry, Captain Silver. Who’s doing what again?”

She leveled a finger across the deck, indicating the windswept form of Golbez on the far end. The Master Wizard was leaning out over the railing of the airship as they flew.

“Oh, he does that all the time,” Cecil eyed his brother cautiously. The Paladin might have been more shocked at the sight if he hadn’t already grown used to seeing his brother perform such oddities. By now, he had learned that Golbez rarely did anything that made much sense to the majority of the sane populace on the Blue Planet.

The captain, however, looked less than happy. “If he goes overboard, we’re not stopping to look for his mangled body.”

“No, of course not. I wouldn’t ask you to,” the Paladin folded the maps carefully.

“So little concern for one of your own men, King Cecil?” Captain Silver retorted.

“Golbez would probably catch back up to us eventually.”

She fell silent for a long moment. When she spoke again, her eyes were a bit spooked, “Did you just say… Golbez?”

“Yes, I did,” he forced his voice to stay calm in reply.

“King Cecil, you didn’t tell me that I would be transporting criminals more infamous than myself on this flight,” Captain Silver eyed him suggestively.

“He’s… reformed?” Cecil offered jovially.

“Yeah, yeah…” she smirked. “That’s what half my crew says.”

The Paladin gave a winning smile in return.

“Well, Golbez or not, he needs to stop leaning over my rail,” Captain Silver muttered with lowered brows.

Cecil peered over at her quietly, “Would you like to be the one that tells him that?”

She eyed him for a moment, obviously gathering her thoughts for a come back. Then she fixed her gaze back on the speeding horizon with a deep scowl, “I’m only paid to pilot this ship. If one of your passengers go airborne, it’s not my problem.”

“Ah,” the young King gave a slight smile, “Though you’re right. I’ll talk to him about it. That doesn’t promise to do any good, however.”

“Pash,” she scoffed softly, “Coming from you, why does that not surprise me?”

Cecil did not reply to the young captain’s jeers. Instead, he made his way out of the sheltered pilot’s station and over the long airship deck.

Silverlining hasn’t changed a bit… I wonder how she got her hands on a beauty like this.

Despite the ship’s less than spotless reputation, the Barnburner’s planks were bright with the glow of fastidiousness. The gentle whirr of the rotary motors above his head left Cecil with a sense of confidence in the crew’s abilities. It was partially the ship’s healthy disposition and his own familiarity of the captain that had led the Paladin to hire the Barnburner as their transport ship to Troia.

Of course, I could never really ask her… Since I’d probably have to haul her in if I were to know the truth.

The solid sound of his footsteps upon the wood did not seem to register on Golbez. The Half-Lunar’s eyes were fixed on the depths of the forests that had begun to spring up below them. The expression on his face was one of fixed concentration… so much that Cecil began to grow more curious the closer he came.

Finally, stopping a short ways from the rail, the Paladin called softly, “Brother..?”

The Master Wizard didn’t respond. The only motion was the tangle of white hair and the billow of green cloak as both snapped in the wind.

“Golbez?” Cecil spoke again, striding slowly towards the rail. “Are you feeling okay?”

“Hun?” the Half-Lunar turned, blinking at the Paladin as if just suddenly realizing he was there. “Oh… Cecil? Ah, yeah. I’m fine. Why?”

“I saw you leaning over the rail here. I thought maybe you were a bit air-sick?”

Golbez shook his head quickly. “No… I never get air-sick.”

“Well, you’re giving the captain a scare, at the least. You really shouldn’t hang so far over,” the Paladin murmured quietly. “Just a little turbulence and we could lose you.”

“Well,” the Master Wizard gave a nervous grin, “You wouldn’t mind that so much, would you?”

“Come on, Golbez. You know that’s not true,” Cecil wrinkled his nose.

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Pretty sure.”

The young King turned his head to observe the passing forests below. There was a sense of peace surrounding the ship…. the peace that one only got from being so far above the world.

I never even realized I missed this till I got on this ship… there’s just no feeling quite like flying.

Golbez must have taken notice. His question came slowly, as if uncertain whether he should ask. “What’s on your mind, Cecil?”

“Oh, I was just thinking about how I missed flying like this.”

“You mean, flying airships?”

“Yeah,” Cecil nodded. “I haven’t gotten to fly as much now that I’m a King.”

“You used to fly a lot then?”

“All the time. I was the Captain of the Red Wings. My second home was practically the deck of a ship.”

Golbez gave a small, unexpected smile. “I didn’t know that.”

“What… that I was Captain of the Red Wings?”

“No… that you liked to fly so much.”

“Tell me where else you can go to say that you’ve skimmed the cloud tops… or outrun the west winds?” the Paladin tilted his head, peering across the low cloud banks. “I guess it sounds a little dumb, but the world just seems so peaceful when you look down on it from up here. Nothing at all like how it really is on the ground.”

“I don’t think it sounds dumb at all,” Golbez leaned his chin down on top of his folded hands. “As a matter of fact, it’s probably quite natural that you enjoy it so much. Father was the one that brought the first ship designs here to the Blue Planet.”

“Wha…?” Cecil blinked over, suddenly distracted.

“Yeah, you didn’t know?”

“I thought Cid was the one who…”

“Oh, yeah, Master Cid was involved too,” the Half-Lunar nodded. “But it was really Father who drew up the original designs for the Red Wings. He just never stepped up to take credit for it.”

“Seriously?”

“Well, I mean, look at the Big Whale. He built that… too…” Golbez’s voice wavered off, a sudden pained look crossing his face.

Cecil recognized the look instantly. It was the same expression he had seen before, once when his brother was attempting to remember something deep within his past.

Still, the Paladin found himself asking, “How do you know?”

“I…” Golbez paused, blinking down at his hands. “I just… I just remembered… just now. Since we were talking about the ships, I guess?”

Cecil tried to keep the welling of concern that began to rise within his chest from showing on his face.

I wonder if that means that Golbez’s memories really will come back.

It was a very scary thought to consider.

And if they do return… does that mean he’d become the Dark Lord again? Even after all of this?

The silence between them had become uncomfortable. Golbez’s eyes flickered, the light behind them lost to the struggle of his own internal war once again.

When it comes down to it… what side will win this war? Who will Golbez choose to become in the end?

“Cecil?” the Master Wizard’s voice still quavered as he fought to change the subject.

“Yeah?” the Paladin blinked out of his thoughts at the sound of his brother’s voice.

“I was just wondering…” Golbez paused.

“Wondering…?” he tried to sound encouraging.

“How come we hired a pirate ship to take us to Troia?”

“It’s a mercenary ship. There’s a big difference,” Cecil choked. “Who told you this was a pirate ship?”

“I heard Kain say so,” Golbez shrugged.

“Ah, well, Kain has a way of stating things… rather… indelicately?”

“But we still hired a ship, right?”

“That’s right. Why?” the young king squinted, trying to follow his brother’s line of thinking.

“I don’t understand. Why didn’t we just use one of the Red Wings?” the Master Wizard inquired. “You can fly a ship just fine, can’t you?”

“Of course I can,” Cecil told him. “But the idea of taking a non-fleet ship like this is to hopefully throw people off of our track.”

“You think we’re being watched?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“It’s hard to tell,” Golbez admitted.

“I agree. That’s why I think it’s better to play it safe,” Cecil nodded slowly. “Besides, we sent another ship off to Damcyan a few days before we left. If we get lucky, maybe the enemy will think that you and I were on the official ship and totally overlook this one.”

The Half-Lunar squinted suspiciously, “Do you know something, Cecil?”

“What… do you mean?” the Paladin froze.

“I know that one of your ships never came back from sending the message out to Troia, but…” Golbez frowned slowly. “Is that the only reason you’ve chosen to go there first?”

Cecil hesitated, a pinched look on his face.

It’s because I saw the city of Troia destroyed in my dream.

The Paladin’s fingers tightened on the wood of the railing.

But what if it really didn’t happen? What if I’m wasting our precious time on something that may have not even come to pass?

Golbez simply stood there, green eyes watching his younger brother with a deeply knowing look.

I can’t tell him… He’d probably think I’m a fool to go speeding off after some image in a nightmare.

Cecil turned away, feeling a bit intimidated.

He is a Master Wizard, after all. And me… I don’t really know a thing about all this mystical Lunarian mumbo-jumbo.

“It’s okay, Cecil,” Golbez finally spoke. The words were smooth and reassuring. “I trust your judgment. I was only curious why you chose to come this way first because…”

The way the last word lingered in the air left Cecil with a bad taste in his mouth. He gave a gentle urge, “Because…?”

“Because,” the Master Wizard turned his gaze back upon the expanse of trees that passed below. “Because… something about this forest speaks to me… There is something here that is very, very wrong. I can feel it.”

The Paladin found himself holding his breath, unable to think of anything to say in reply. Whatever he had been expecting to come from his brother’s mouth, it had not been anything like this.

Before either of them could speak again, a shout came across the deck of the ship, “Hoooo! Your Majesty!”

The two Half-Lunars turned to see Captain Silver waving to them from the pilot’s area.

“I wonder what that’s about?” Cecil murmured half to himself, turning away from the rail to answer the call. Golbez followed at a short distance behind.

Captain Silver met them both at the incline. Her eyes shifted and lingered on Golbez momentarily before she turned to address Cecil. “One of my boys just found himself an extra bit of baggage in the hold. We was wonderin’ if it mighta belonged to you?”

One of the deck hands swaggered forward from where he had been standing behind the captain. One meaty fist plunked down the shivering form of a little boy.

Golbez perked in instant recognition, “Chase!? What are you doing here?”

“Beeeeeen…” the page sniffed softly. “King Cecil… I’m sorry! Please don’t be angry at me!”

“A stowaway,” Captain Silver eyed the two Half-Lunars with a quizzical look.

“Well,” Cecil stroked his chin with one finger.

“You know what happens to stowaways, right?” she continued slowly, jabbing one finger towards the boy. “They get to walk tha plank!”

Chase gasped.

Heh… she’s going to scare the poor boy senseless. I guess I should try and get him off the hook. Even if he did jump-ship on us.

“Well, this one certainly doesn’t belong to me,” the Paladin turned towards Ben with a sly look. “What about you, Golbez?”

“Uh… what about me?” the Master Wizard blinked.

The page’s golden eyes grew round and afraid. “B… B…Ben..?”

“Does this one belong to you?” Captain Silver asked. “If not, he’s done stowed-away.”

“Well… actually,” Golbez nodded, “Yeah. He’s my page. So I guess he does sorta belong to me.”

The deck hand gave a grunt and firmly pushed Chase towards the Master Wizard. The boy instantly stumbled forward, wrapping his arms around Golbez’s waist for comfort.

“Then I’d suggest that you take care of your extra baggage,” Captain Silver smirked slowly. “And stop leanin’ over my rails. I’m not responsible if you lose a limb from your own foolishness.”

Golbez turned to the captain with a blink, “Yes, Ma’am.”

“Hrmph…” she snorted through her nose softly. “Good manners don’t smooth over bad behavior. I suggest you remove your luggage from my sight.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he stuttered again, this time pulling Chase away from the pilot’s area.

“I swear, kids start going rotten so early these days,” Captain Silver grumbled. “What’s this world coming to?”

“What, indeed…” Cecil found himself agreeing, his eyes turning back to the tree-lined horizon with a shiver of foreboding.

Ch5-3 Into the Mountain

“I’m listening,” Kip encouraged her.

“Gotta hand it to the Daear,” O.M.E.G.A. quipped with one upraised eyebrow, “Their sense of interior decorating is original.”

His words had very little effect on his target. The girl – she called herself Joran – remained distant and self-absorbed. Her body language gave little sign as to whether she was trying to block him out due to discomfort (he wasn’t a pretty sight, afterall) or if she was simply dodging a volley of her own anxious thoughts.

She did seem the anxious type.

Kip’s back was pressed casually against the living green of the stone wall, his hands working conversation between them. Talk about the weather. Talk about the scenery. Talk about the huge, floating upside-down mountain they were holed up in.

Out of the Tower, into the Mountain.

The entire place was a Daear fortress, carved out of the hollow heart of an uprooted mountain. That much he had been able to dredge out of Joran.

The rest he could observe, sense for himself — how the entire structure seemed to run on some biological miracle-mechanism. The place was covered in groves of dark, snaky trees that looked to be half shrub, half vine. Their flat, groping leaves drew in the sunlight — sucked it straight down to the roots and into the stone, feeding the processes of the fortress with energy from the sun.

No machines. No magic. Simply plant life.

The Anti-Zot.

Kip suppressed a shudder.

“I do get my own room, yes?” he turned his single eye upon the girl. Wedging in. Prying open interaction.

All it took was one weak spot and her walls would fall. Then he’d be inside.

And she won’t even know it.

“I’m sure Pren will be here soon,” Joran answered. Not unfriendly, just distant.

“Is Pren the housekeeper?” he pretended dumb, hoping to amuse. Amusement weakened armor. Sometimes dissolved it completely.

“No, she’s the leader of the Daear.” Joran didn’t like Pren. It was written in her voice. As good as spoken.

“Seriously?” Kip’s face twisted in a look of mock surprise. Playing on ego while excavating for information. “And to think I had you pegged as the boss…”

“Me?” she gave him an embarrassed look. Ego-stroking wasn’t the way to go. “No, not me.”

Kip offered a friendly frown, “My mistake, then. You seem like a take-charge type.”

“Sometimes,” her voice hesitated.

She’s in over her head here.

His friendly smile widened. “But you do know the game plan?”

“For the most part,” she glanced at him sideways; his dark hair, plated face, eye patch and single green-ember eye. Her expression lacked any trace of trust.

He gave the conversation a gentle push in the right direction. “You gonna fill me in so we can get down to business?”

“I already told you.” Withdrawal.

“You were sent to wake me. That, I know. You want my help. That, I know. What I don’t know are the details – the situation I’m looking at. Not much I can do for you without the particulars. Logical enough, yes?”

“Yes…” Joran echoed. Scared. Little-girl scared. Clearly, she didn’t even know the situation she was looking at.

Exactly the type I want.

O.M.E.G.A. leaned forward, expression open and unassuming. His palms were planted safely on his knees, down where she could see them. His face lowered its level to meet hers.

The Lunarians were a small-built people, though unaware of how small until they came face to face with the Blue Planet dwellers. Kip knew. He had been Lunar once.

“I’m listening,” Kip encouraged her. His voice was pleasant, like having an after tea-time chat.

Joran’s green eyes slid to him again. He could see the equations rolling through her gaze. Dark and menacing features plus friendly and amiable disposition.

Doesn’t add up, does it, Sweets?

O.M.E.G.A. held his easy stance, the warm smile never faltering.

Most things don’t in this world. Just wait and see.

As Joran measured him in silence, he could feel her struggling. There was little trouble in finding the source of the turmoil.

Ah… there it is… The crack in the wall.

The girl’s face told the story of longing born of confusion. She wanted to find something to hold on to, something safe in which to confide.

Right here, Sweets. Look no further.

Kip beamed ever more brightly. As if he could bleach the invading darkness from his hair.

“It’s about the Crystal,” her words came with hesitation. As if she wasn’t sure she should be talking to him about it. As if she might be afraid that the edge of conversation might lead to the unveiling of something deeper.

“Yes,” Kip’s voice was soft in a throaty way. He had a good voice due to his profession. Everyone had always told him so. “The Crystal you showed me at the Tower. You said it was created by Golbez?”

It took everything in him not to hiss the name out.

“That’s right. Golbez has been developing this Incrytan – that’s what he called it – for about half a year now,” Joran nodded slowly.

“It must be pretty special then. For him to spend so much time on it?”

“I don’t know the full details… just that he claimed that it was supposed to eventually become a Key Crystal.” The girl gave O.M.E.G.A. a curious look. The first expression that wasn’t revulsion. “Does that have some sort of meaning?”

“Yes…” Kip responded, voice trailing off as his thoughts churned around him.

A Key Crystal. Golbez, you really are one slick bastard…

She leaned forward. “Tell me.”

“Well…” O.M.E.G.A. rubbed the palm of his hand over his chin. Fingertips brushed cold metal plates. “The Key Crystal was originally just a theory. Written by KluYa, you know?”

Joran took a hiss of breath in.

Kip read the sound instantly. “You knew KluYa?”

“Yes… in the Manor,” she answered.

The Manor.

One disorienting moment. It had been a long time since he had heard that repulsive name uttered. Kip shook it out of his system, recovering almost seamlessly. “So did I.”

“What?” the girl’s eyes flew to his face, searching it for a lie. “You knew KluYa?”

“Yes. And the Manor. I spent time there.” What he did during that time, he didn’t mention.

Instead, Kip raised his hand in a flowing gesture, the Greeting of the Manor. His fingers felt stiff. He was surprised that he still remembered it, something he had not done in so long.

This seemed enough to convince her. Joran’s face sparked to life, a sudden bridge being crossed in her mind. For here was someone that knew the Greeting. “You really came from the Manor!?”

“Yes,” his smile was warm for her. Congratulatory for himself.

Then her face questioned. “But…”

“What’s wrong?” Kip tilted his head in concern.

“You… don’t look like a Lunar.”

“I did once. Just, not anymore,” his voice lowered. As did his gaze. Fishing for sympathy. She felt like the sympathetic kind.

“What… happened?” Joran had grown slightly pale. As if she wasn’t sure that her questions were welcomed.

“Project O.M.E.G.A.”

“O.M.E.G.A.? Isn’t that what they call you?” she seemed confused.

“It became my name eventually. After the experiments took my original identity away from me,” he frowned slowly, feeling his own emotions tugged into the conversation. He pushed away from that train of thought. “But that’s a story for another time.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. And she was.

“No big deal,” Kip quipped softly. Gave her a smile.

She smiled back. It was alright. “If you’re sure?”

“Yeah, besides… we were talking about the Crystal.”

“That’s right!” Joran jolted back to the original train of thought. “So it was something designed by KluYa?”

“Originally, yes. I don’t think he ever got around to developing it, however,” O.M.E.G.A. pursed his lips.

“What is the Key Crystal supposed to do?” the girl shied away from the more obvious questions. Shied away from talking about KluYa.

She cared for him.

His eye glittered sharply, jade ice. “It is rumored to be able to tap into and control the energies of the other existing Crystals. The eight on the Blue Planet and eight on the Moon. I believe the idea was to create a Key of some sort that could override all other commands given to the Crystals.”

So that something like the Crystal War did not break out. Just a little too late now.

“Yes, but, isn’t that dangerous?” Thoughts were flickering in panic over Joran’s face. She knew something. Something that wasn’t good.

“It could be, if in the wrong hands,” Kip nodded. “I think that’s why KluYa decided to scrap the idea. Though I’m curious… what did Golbez have in mind when he decided to continue his father’s work on such a thing…”

“You’re not the first one to ask that,” her tone was suddenly cold.

“It’s a logical question?”

“I suppose… but…”

She had turned her face away, struggling with her own thoughts. He left her to her silence as he studied the way the light played off the black buttons on his coat.

Finally, feeling a sense of wasted time, Kip murmured, “You stole it from him. Why?”

Joran sucked on her bottom lip before answering. “Because he was consumed with it.”

Interesting.

“What do you mean?” Kip balanced the fascination in his voice, tipping it towards concern. “Consumed?”

“I don’t know. It was just like… Golbez kept himself locked up down in this little room in the library. He worked on this thing day in and day out. It was impossible to get his mind off it,” her brow wrinkled in slight pain. “It got to be that he would hardly even want to talk anymore. He used to teach me a little magic before he started making the Crystal.”

“So everything else went out the window?”

“Yeah,” her voice quavered. Jealousy of the Crystal.

So, Joran’s in love with Golbez…

“Why didn’t you just bust it up?” Kip leaned forward. Friendly relationship counselor.

“Sparrow said it would kill him,” Joran swallowed. “She said that his life energy is bound to the Crystal… it takes that much of a connection for someone, even Golbez, to create such a powerful item.”

“Sparrow?” he questioned. Things were getting thicker.

“She’s the one that helped me get here to the Blue Planet,” the girl told him. “She was the one that told me I had to…”

Kip’s gaze enveloped the girl. She looked like she was about to burst into tears despite the initial show of strength at the beginning of the conversation.

“She told you that you had to do what…?” he urged, placing a concerned hand on her shoulder.

The girl was so distraught within her thoughts, she didn’t think to pull back. She simply stood there, in a cast-off daze, fighting with the expression on her face.

Very, very close. Just a little more.

“Joran,” Kip murmured her name. It was the first time he had captured it with his voice… his power flowing gently through the sound. “You brought me here to help you, remember? I promised you that I would.”

Her breath caught in her throat. Her eyes were measuring him again. Looking to see if he was sturdy, if she should allow herself to lean.

“You can tell me…” Words as gentle as spring rain, laced with poison.

The emotion broke. Joran began to sob softly, gripping at the front of his coat.

“They told me to use Incrytan to absorb the Blue Planet Crystals! That if I did, Golbez would be free from the control that the Crystals have over him,” she repented with a choke.

Hedd-ynad…

“And I did! I did it! I destroyed the… the… W-water and the… Earth Crystals,” her face blanched in pain. “They didn’t t-tell me that p-people would… would… die! That cities… would… be d-destroyed! And now I can’t… I can’t stop it! If I d-don’t destroy the rest of the Crystals, then…”

“The Blue Planet will eventually be cast into its own annihilation from the imbalance of the remaining Crystals…” Kip finished for her, face distant. He knew all too well what that meant.

“Just like Runne,” Joran hiccupped softly, trying to pull herself together. “Just like Runne!”

Kip’s face was blank. She wrung her fingers against the flaps of his coat, unable to seek sympathy and unable to break away. One of his hands lifted, placed gently on the top of her head.

O.M.E.G.A…. don’t…

“Let me help you,” he heard himself say. Sudden self-revulsion swept through him.

…don’t… don’t start this ball rolling…

Joran peered slowly up at him. At the twilight-cast hair. The one cold eye, its partner misplaced under dark cloth. The plates bolted into his jaw. He didn’t know what she saw in his face… but her expression was one of gratitude.

…she doesn’t deserve this…

“Thank you…” She nodded her acceptance, honoring his name with an almost friendly tone, “Kip.”

O.M.E.G.A. … what have you begun…

And something within him died, just a little bit more.

Ch5-4 Dracolich

The sound of scraping of bone on bone as the massive head lurched back, away from the brilliance of the young King’s holy radiance.

Ben’s green eyes narrowed. They reflected the hints of twilight that had begun to flush across the silent sky. The first pale stars peeked from their daytime coverings, unnoticed by the Master Wizard. His mind was focused below their ship, into the darkening stretch of forest.

Forbidden.

Something that should not be there. Something that had passed from life to death to unlife. A stain upon the balance of the living planet.

Surrounded by the pulse of the vast Troian forests, it was hard for Ben not to notice it. The feeling of wrongness wafted up from the sea of leaves below, a death stench.

The closer we’ve come, the more pronounced this feeling has been. I don’t think we should take this route.

Ben turned his head, face grim as he made out the shapes planted across the deck. Captain Silver paced behind her pilot, a constant expression of discontent on her pinched face. A few sailors were bent over their last tasks for the day – net mending or deck scrubbing. The rest of the passengers seemed to have retired below decks. There was no sign of the Paladin King.

“Where’s Cecil?” the tall Half-Lunar asked, approaching the blue-haired woman inelegantly. Her stern expression reminded him that he was addressing the Captain of the ship and that his speech should have reflected it.

“Last I’ve seen he was pacing the aft,” Silver replied bluntly. Her manner reminded him of someone that was in the process of constantly sizing up everyone around her. Obviously, she didn’t like what she saw in him and she didn’t bother to hide it. “Chances are, he’s probably put down for the night.”

“Put what down?” Ben asked.

“Put down – gone below decks for the night,” she grumbled up at him.

“Oh…” he shifted from foot to foot under the weight of her glare. Working up his courage, he told her, “I’d alert your men, Captain. There’s something in the forest below us and I don’t think it’s very friendly.”

“Of course there’s something in the forest,” Silver grated back at him. “There’s always something in the forest. And the point is being that we’re up here and it’s down there. Which is how wes likes to keep it.”

“With all due respect, Captain,” the Half-Lunar forced himself into politeness, “I can’t promise that it’s going to stay that way. I’m telling you… put your men on alert, they should be ready for anything tonight.”

The nearest group of sailors had dropped their tasks, watching the exchange between the tall white-haired stranger and their Captain. Some offered Ben glances of amused pity. A few others seemed genuinely disturbed by his words.

Silver just looked all the more annoyed. “You’re telling me how to do my job, eh? Just who is the Captain of this ship here, matey?”

“Yeah, well… What sort of Captain doesn’t heed a given warning when it could spell disaster for the whole ship and crew?” he felt himself losing patience. Very quickly.

“For all we know, you’re probably the one staging an attack… Mr. Dark Lord Golbez!” she spat, jabbing a finger towards his chest. If there was any fear for him, it certainly didn’t show.

“N-no… you misunderstand!” Taken aback, Ben floundered with both hands spread. He saw he was getting no where fast.

Sheesh! Human women are even more stubborn than humans in general!

“Um, excuse me, if you’d please?” a soft, young voice piped up from the other side of the deck.

Both the Captain and the Master Wizard stopped, eyes turning at the gentle request. There stood a young Mysidian White Mage.

The girl that they called Porom, I believe?

Though she was merely a girl-child in Ben’s eyes, he knew that she had been one of Cecil’s companions during his climb to the summit of Mt. Ordeals. The fact that the Paladin had again chosen her to accompany their group on this expedition spoke volumes of credit.

Her face was smooth with youth, yet set with a sense of maturity beyond her years. Deep brown eyes seemed to gently chide the two bickering grown-ups. When she finally spoke, Ben was stunned to discover it was in his defense.

“Most esteemed Lady Silver,” the girl gave a low bow. “Not to question your good judgment… however, Master Golbez has been known to possess uncanny knowledge about things that other people can’t see.”

Does she actually believe me?

The Captain’s eyebrows shot up. It was hard to tell if it was from surprise or amusement. “Is that so, lassy?”

“Yes, ma’am. I doubt he’d say such a thing if there wasn’t some sort of threat,” Porom’s eyes flickered over to observe the Half-Lunar’s face. As if she wasn’t really certain of the validity of her statement. But there was hope.

“No… of course I wouldn’t!” Ben replied quickly. “I’m on the same boat as everyone else… I certainly don’t want to see it blasted out of the air!”

“Aye, and it won’t be,” the Captain frowned, buckling a little. “Fetch Cecil here. We’ll discuss air defense for a possible attack.”

The Half-Lunar wanted to argue that there wasn’t a lot of time for talk. But all he could do was watch the retreating back of the little White Mage as she darted down below the decks with the Captain’s message.

I suppose that’s the best I can get… considering who I am.

Ben fought the grimace that rose to his face.

I guess my warning must seem out of place. After all, the forest has been really silent this whole time. If I didn’t feel what I do… I’d never know the difference either.

When Cecil emerged from below the deck, his white hair was disheveled with the look of one dragged out of a nap. His sword was strapped at his side, step never faltering even through the hazy look of groggy eyes.

With a droll face, the Paladin addressed his brother first, “What did you do this time?”

“Cecil… I–”

“He’s demanding a red alert and spooking up my men,” Silver grumbled, eyeing the young King. “These forests have enough sailor legends stuck to them without having doom-sayers on the ship to stir things up.”

“Is this true, Golbez?”

Ben caught his brother’s gaze with his own and held it. “Cecil… you’ve got to believe me. There’s something down there and it could be a potential danger to this ship.”

“Do you know what it is?” the Paladin seemed moved, if only a little, by the sincerity of the Half-Lunar’s concern.

“I… No. I don’t,” he admitted with a frown.

“See there?” The Captain grimaced at the King, “Do you really expect me to act on his feelings with nothing else to back them up?”

Cecil’s face grew pensive and quiet, green eyes fixed on his brother. After a short moment he nodded. “Yes, Captain Silver. Put your men on alert.”

“Eh!?” Ben drew in a quick, surprised breath. He couldn’t help staring at the Paladin’s back as the young King addressed the irritated Captain.

Porom gave him a small, victory smile.

A moment later, Silver began barking out commands to the men closest. Word spread as quickly as sound – helped by the fact that the Captain’s piercing voice could easily be heard even through the thickest wooden floor planks of the ship. All around him, the sailors were in motion, scrambling to their weapons, securing loose nettings and seeing that the cannons were warmed for firing.

Not that any of that will really help. Whatever it is I’m feeling down below… is going to take a lot more than just a ship of humans to put up proper defense against.

The Half-Lunar’s eyes strayed to observe the faces of the crew as they jostled by him. Humans, every one of them. But still.

At least… maybe a warning can give them a fighting chance…

Though he had to admit that sometimes the humans held a resourcefulness that was simply astounding.

It must come from their overwhelming weakness. Creatures that have to strive against powers so much greater than themselves… often develop such ingenuity out of the need to survive.

The creaking of the masts grew stronger as the night air took on its chill. Silence swept over the ship, all eyes cast warily down upon the tops of the darkening trees. As the sun began to slip into its final descent, the Captain’s face had grown more and more unconvinced. And she had begun to spear Ben with an evil glare every chance she got.

Cecil stationed himself on one of the lower lookouts, a spying glass in one hand. Despite having been away from piloting for so long, the Paladin had deftly taken to climbing the ropes and balancing the masts as if no time had passed at all. Had the Baronian officials seen their King-reverted-Pilot, no doubt they would have pitched an endless fit.

It was a sailor on the aft that first heard it. He raced up towards the Captain, face ashen white, hands spread as he babbled in a total state of panic.

“Calm down, mate!” Silver demanded, face growing heated with rising anger. “Calm down and make us some sense, will you!”

“I heard it…!” he grasped at her lapels in a manner not befitting a sailor to his captain. Wild face. Wild eyes. There was no room for decorum in absolute terror. “I heard death screech!”

“See there,” Silver turned her dagger eyes towards the two Half Lunars. “You go getting them all wound up and they go popping their tops! Now do you see why you don’t just go sounding false alerts when there’s nothing to be see–”

The whole ship suddenly bucked, dropping out from under them as if some giant hand had come from above and swatted them down. The sound of ripping wood and squealing metal shattered the blanket of tension that had muffled the decks. Shouts of alarm went up, men scattering in all directions as one side of the ship began to buckle.

Jolting hard against the cabin wall, Ben managed to catch hold of Porom as she stumbled backwards. Without a moment of thought, the girl instantly clutched at his cloak. Brown eyes staring and wide, she watched in mute fear as a blur of ghastly grey shot up over the far railing.

“What the hell is that thing!?” the Captain shouted above the roar of the failing engine. A streak of oily smoke spewed skyward as the ship trembled on the verge of a spin-out.

“I don’t know!” Cecil replied, now down on the deck and struggling to keep the wheel steady. The Paladin had instantly replaced the panicked first mate, who had bolted the moment the ship lost control. “We’re losing altitude! It went for the engine!”

“A Dra..gon..?” Porom whimpered, face tinged green in revulsion.

Huge bone claws were hooked around the groaning wood of the ship’s railing. With a strength born of a thing that felt no pain, the beast splintered the ship side, pulling itself to perch upon the deck.

Dracolich…!?

Once a Dragon, now a beast of the undead, it no longer possessed a body of scale or blood. It had become a rotted husk of stained bone, dripping decayed flesh from the bristled maw. A grisly impossibility invading the living world from the realms of death.

Only thin flaps of tattered skin remained upon the outstretched bone of the wings. But it had been enough for the Dracolich to have launched a final flight up to their ship. Sparks of red burned within the hollow sockets of its eyes. It seemed to have no trouble focusing on the scurry of human fear below.

“All hands on deck!” Silver’s voice boomed, allowing no room for argument.

Ben stared down at his hands in stunned confusion. “What does that mean!?”

“She’s telling all the sailors to come up to the deck!” Porom translated quickly.

“What? No!” the Half-Lunar protested with his own bellow. “Captain, get your hands off the deck!”

Silver turned on him with a cold stare.

“There’s nothing that you or your men can do to scratch this thing,” Ben shouted. “Clear your people out before they get ripped to pieces!”

“And what do you expect me to do? Stand here and watch this monster bank my ship?”

“No… Cecil and I have fought one of these before – we’ll handle it! Just keep the men out of the way!”

She muttered under her breath. “Great… Now I’m trusting Golbez to protect my ship!”

Cecil’s sword was already in his hand. His feet were planted steady, eyes focused on the Dragon, despite the crazy motion of the deck.

“You owe me big time, Paladin!” Silver hissed as she took the wayward wheel, struggling to keep the reeling ship steady under the loss of the engine. Then she raised her voice again, calling to the men, “Clear the decks! Secure the below!”

“Go..!” Ben nudged Porom in the direction of the cabin with a gentle push.

Much to his surprise, the girl turned around with a choke of protest, “Master, no! Let me help! White Magic is good to fight against the undead!”

A strange flicker of emotion trickled through his mind at the vision of unexpected courage.

Just one mere girl-child… but she is so determined to fight. Even if that means standing her ground next to Golbez?

Ben shook himself out, giving her a gentle, yet unyielding frown. “Normal undead, yes. But this creature isn’t your common reanimated, child. There’s no doubt it’s one of the Elemental Dragons.”

Porom’s mouth opened in shock. “Like the one that attacked Mysidia?”

“Yes,” the Half-Lunar grimaced, pulling his own blade from its sheath. “That can only mean that the Crystal of Earth has been destroyed…”

Cecil’s breath came in a sharp hiss. His green eyes glittered across the darkening haze at his brother. “You’re positive?!”

“I don’t see that it could be anything else,” Ben caught hold of the cabin wall as the ship took a dizzied turn. Being so close to the doorway, he once again ushered Porom towards the below. “Go on, now. And save your magic. No doubt some of the men are going to need your help once this is over with.”

With a pained glance over one shoulder, the young White Mage stumbled through the door, disappearing below the deck along with the stream of rushing sailors. The ship gave another lurch as the Dracolich threw its weight across the deck, heading for the line of main propellers.

Eh… curious… he ignores the men and wants to ground us?

“Shiva! He’s trying everything to take us down!” the Paladin swore.

Leaving his last observation hanging in the air behind him, Cecil launched towards the oncoming beast. His sword glittered, catching the last rays of gold that spanned the undersides of the clouds.

“Cecil!” Ben’s voice rose in his throat. “Watch yourself! There’s no telling wha–”

The red blazing eyes caught the Paladin’s motion, turning on the young King with a ghastly screech of putrid breath. A stream of dark spray erupted from the Dracolich’s maw, leaving an oily trail of black upon the wood as Cecil sprang just out of reach. The deck hissed as the patches of ooze spread over its surface, instantly turning the wood grey… then white… then flaking away in the force of the wind.

Rot?

“Odin’s Blade!” the Half-Lunar wheezed, backing away from the pungent reek. “Its breath can cause accelerated decay!”

By the look on Cecil’s face, the Paladin was realizing how close he had come to finding himself within that spray. Covering his nose with the edge of his cloak, his voice was a muffled groan, “Golbez, we’ve gotta keep it away from the engines. That spells a bottom-out crash for sure!”

“I know,” Ben grimaced, trying to keep his footing as he moved along the swaying deck.

The shadow of ragged wings spread over him only a moment before the huge boned claw swooped down from above. With a hoarse shout, the Half-Lunar attempted to dodge, finding himself scrabbling up an impossible slope of slick wood. The ship shuddered as the impact shattered through a whole section of the deck.

Below, cries of terror could be plainly heard.

Mouth wide open, Ben rolled over on his back, hooking one arm around a piece of the railing. The demon eyes were now focused upon him, more aware than an undead thing had a right to be. Struggling with his free hand, the Half-Lunar pulled his blade in front of him in the best defensive position he could awkwardly manage.

The Dracolich had other ideas. The huge maw gaping wide, the initial blast of grave-reeking air left Ben blinded with watery eyes. The bone-plated head reared back to follow up with the oozing breath spray.

A flash of white light intercepted, so dazzling that Ben almost lost his grip on Onyx. Cecil’s shout sliced the air, as he thrust the Crystal Sword between the beast and his brother. The glow intensified, emanating from the bare blade, the whistle of speeding metal filling Ben’s ears.

Nooo!

The wizard recoiled violently, this time, from the burning sensation of the blade’s holy light. No doubt, Cecil hadn’t thought of what effect his Paladinly aura might have upon his once Dark Lord brother.

Cecil! St-stop!

A frigid howl rent the air as the Dracolich responded similarly. The sound of scraping of bone on bone as the massive head lurched back, away from the brilliance of the young King’s holy radiance. Jerky motions sent it staggering backwards, one hissing step after another, tendriled wings outstretched as if for shielding.

The burning sensation in the Master Wizard’s throat began to lessen as the light grew more and more concentrated upon the creature alone. Regaining his vision, Ben’s mouth opened in surprise as he focused on the wavering image of the Paladin standing before him. Vivid light and soft color swept around the shimmer of pristine armor, Lunar-white hair casting around a face absolutely poised and illuminated with the strength of protection.

He looks like…

Image overlapping upon memory, Ben felt something in his throat tighten.

Father?

The ship lurched, sending Ben scattering out of his thoughts and sliding away from the railing of the deck. Straight towards the underside of the Dracolich. The beast was still writhing within the scald of the white light, the shrieks of outraged pain sending jolts through the planking.

“Ehhhh!” Sliding down the slant of deck on his back, Ben suddenly found himself directly under the creature. He felt a retch churning within his gut as he stared up into the gaping hollow of flesh dripping from bone.

Hands tightening around the grip of Onyx, the Half-Lunar rolled into a side-crouch as his own blade took on a green-flamed glow. With a tremendous bellow, Ben struck out at the nearest point that he could – the Dracolich’s leg. Bone shattered, sending a spray of gritty dust into his face. Much to Ben’s surprise, the flaming sword easily sliced through what seemed to be absolute solidity.

Honing in upon the opening in the battle, Cecil sprang forward, an arc of glimmering illumination. Blade first, the Paladin slashed upward, straight through the chest cavity into the lower skull of the beast. A howling rasp ripped through the air as the Dracolich’s form reeled off balance, toppling backwards against the wooden frame of the cabin.

Odin’s Blade!

Ribs cracked with the impact. Vast wings caught within the nearest propellers, sending bone chips raining across the decks. Metal squealed to a stop, twisting out of shape, the ship responding in a spiral of its own.

“We’re going down!” Silver’s voice just barely rose above the rumble of the dying engines.

Flame had already sprung up along the top of the cabin and the paper-dry flesh of the Dracolich’s wings. Pinned against the wooden frame, unable to lever itself to stand, the glare behind the blood red eyes began to fade.

With the beast’s dying shriek, the Barnburner plummeted into the darkness of the forest below.

Ch5-5 Earth Spirits

The two brothers found themselves back to back, swords held ready and the children between them.

The ship was aflame, though it remained mostly in one piece.

Well… more or less…

Which must have been Captain Silver’s line of thought as she began to bark commands to her men to put the fire out. Ben couldn’t tell if there was anything salvageable between the smoke pouring from the engines and the deep gashes across the planks of the deck.

But he did know there had been surprisingly few injuries among the passengers – nothing that couldn’t be handled by the young Mysidian White Mage. The crash, too, had taken them out of the sky with astounding smoothness, a tribute perhaps to Silver’s piloting skills. Or maybe it had been luck.

Or maybe she’s just crashed so many times she knows how to make the best of it by now.

The brittle black remnants of the Dracolich were still embedded into the wood of the cabin wall. Oily ooze leaked out across the deck from where the collapsed bones buckled inward, snapping and popping as the heat of flame consumed the final foundations of the massive beast.

The men were rushing back and forth, a line of buckets and water between a random forest stream and the ship. Captain Silver cast about orders, her hands waving wildly as the sailors scattered through the darkening brush. A few nearby trees had already caught flame, the threat of spreading wildfire becoming more real every moment.

Chase clung tightly to Ben’s cloak, golden eyes wide as the flame danced in their reflection. The boy had been below deck during the attack, yet seemed to regard his first glance at the charring Dracolich remains with a steady silence. The flaming ship, however, he gave a look of horror.

“Ben!” the boy pleaded after a moment, craning his little head back to stare up at the Master Wizard. “Ben, the ship’s on fire!”

“Yeah, I know,” the Half-Lunar replied, not quite sure what answer Chase was fishing for.

“Can’t you do something?” the boy pressed, shivering a little despite the heat.

“Um…?”

“Like make it stop?” Chase wrapped his fingers more tightly in the green of Ben’s cloak, face hopeful. “You can make it stop.”

“Well, I guess I can. But I thought Silver’s sailors were doing okay and I didn’t wanna bother them?” Ben scratched the back of his head. Then squinted at the bonfire ship.

“I don’t think you’d bother them, Ben. They could use your help… the trees are catching,” the page pointed out. “It might light the whole forest on fire!”

Ben murmured, half to himself. “But if I interrupt, Captain Silver is gonna yell at me again…”

“It’s okay, Ben,” Chase gave an encouraging smile. “You have to do what you know is right… even if other people don’t understand at first.”

The Half-Lunar’s mouth parted slightly, a stricken, thoughtful look glittering in his green eyes. Finally, he nodded. “Okay… I’ll try.”

The boy’s face broke into a sunny grin.

Feeling encouraged, the Master Wizard paced away from the boy, advancing carefully towards the flaming ship. Red hues flashing from white hair and deep green eyes beginning to glow, his tall form was instantly noticed as he strode across the glade. Even Edge paused, water bucket in one hand, to give the Half-Lunar a snerly look.

“What are you doing?!” Silver shouted at him, just as he had predicted. “If you wanna make yourself useful, grab a bucket and stop holding us up!”

Undaunted, Ben continued toward the billow of fire, stretching his hands in front of him, palms down. The soles of his boots crunched as he stepped into the ring of flame, the heat sending distorted ripples through his vision. On every side, walls of fire stood tall and impenetrable.

“Cecil!” Porom’s voice was tinged with shock, “He’s walking right into it!”

Fire was not his most natural element. But it was one that he was most comfortable with… one that he had studied the longest, even in the days of his childhood. And the years had only worked to secure that mastery.

I don’t see how they can’t understand… putting a fire out is easy. Just the opposite of making a fire. If you can do one, you can do both.

Obediently, the fire did not touch him. It spun in raging circles, leaving the area around the Master Wizard’s feet clear. Not even the hem of his cloak felt the heat of the flame.

“Golbez…?” Cecil’s voice was wavery behind him. Unsure.

Slowly, Ben brought his open palms down, pressing them both towards the ground. As he did, the fire followed, lowering and shrinking as if being sucked back into the wood of the ship. Finally, all that was left was the stream of wayward smoke curling up from the red-crusted planks of the deck.

The flames were no more. Reversed into extinction.

Silence fell over the now-dark glade. Ben could feel all eyes upon his back as he realized, for the first time that the entire crew as staring at him. Slightly embarrassed, the Half-Lunar turned around, only to find that facing them was ten times worse than feeling their gawks at his back.

“Why…” Silver was the first one to speak. “Why didn’t you do that before?”

“Eh… well…” Ben swallowed, giving the Captain a sheepish look. “No one asked me to?”

Cecil just gave a long, blank stare. Edge grumbled something under his breath as he set the water bucket on the ground. Chase had already run up to Ben, wrapping his small arms around the Master Wizard’s waist as if he would never let go.

“Well, hows about I ask you to do a quick fixer-upper on my ship and get us back into the air?” the Captain stuck one hand on her hip, eyes gazing at the Half-Lunar.

Ben scratched the back of his head. “Sorry… it doesn’t work that way.”

“I figured as much. You’re totally useless,” she huffed loudly.

Ben grimaced to himself.

Then Silver looked at Cecil, “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that we’re stranded. We’re going to have to wait till the morning before we can figure out all the damage that’s been done to the ship. And with no place nearby to get parts for the engines…”

The Paladin’s face was grim.

“Why not just foot it on over to Troia?” Edge folded both of his hands behind his head. As if that was the answer to everything.

“Because we don’t know how much of Troia is left,” Ben replied with a spreading scowl.

Porom gave a little half gasp, pressing her fingers to her lips as if to compose herself. But the quaver of her brown eyes gave it away.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” the Ninja’s face darkened as he turned to glare at the Half-Lunar.

“It means…” Cecil’s voice sounded pressured as he broke into the death-glare, “That Troia’s current standing might not be very secure. That Dracolich that we fought on the ship was of the same origins of the Water Dragon that came with the Mysidian refugees. You saw the damage that the creature did before we stopped it – it flooded Mysidia and took out the better part of upper-city Baron. If this Dracolich was released in Troia and the Clerics were unaware…”

“There’s no telling what happened to the people,” Porom finished quietly.

“Ben?” Chase peered up with worry at the Half-Lunar.

“Obviously, they weren’t able to stop the beast since it decided to make my ship its new chew toy,” Silver grimaced, kicking her heel against a nearby rock. “How did a big dumb monster know to go for us… us in particular? It seems rather unusual for the odds to fall that way — we just happen to fly in and it attacks on nightfall?”

“No,” Ben shook his head. “I don’t think it was coincidence. An undead creature like that has some sort of intelligence… but…”

“Ben–?” Chase peeped again, still staring up.

“You think there might have been something controlling it?” Cecil frowned, rubbing his nose with one finger.

“I’m not sure, but…” Ben murmured.

“Beeen?” This time, Chase tugged insistently on the hem of the Master Wizard’s cloak.

“Eh? What’s wrong?” Ben squinted down at the page through the shadows. A frown hovered on the edge of his lips.

Seeing he had the Half-Lunar’s attention, the boy pushed himself up on his tip-toes. His voice was eerie as he announced, “Ben… they’re all around us…”

Caught off guard, Ben squinted more. “What’s all around us?”

“Bad things!” the boy peered fearfully into the looming shadows of the forest. As silence fell upon the sailors, it seemed as if the night sounds began to grow in intensity. Threatening.

Edge’s sharp grey eyes darted from point to point, his brows drawn down in listening concentration. His hands were ready over the grips of his katana. “I don’t hear anything…”

Chase’s hand tightened upon the cloak. His voice became more frightened. “Ben… they’re everywhere… bad things…!”

Ben’s own senses were busy scanning the darkness.

Nothing..?

Nothing but the normal feeling of life flowing through the heavy tree limbs.

But if Chase says there is…

The child’s golden eyes… so certain… so afraid. Staring into the forest.

Chase doesn’t lie…

He focused harder, green eyes flickering with light from within. That’s when he felt it.

A pale spark in the shadows.

Then two. Then five. Then many.

Too many!

It was as if a great light had flashed, just for a moment, clearing his vision of the forest shadows. And within that vision, Ben had seen them – nameless creatures of terrible duality. Encircling the crash spot… in numbers far greater than their own.

“Cecil…!” was the only word that could pass his lips before the forest erupted, a blur of ethereal color bursting from the darkness.

At first, the mind picked out nothing more but a strange conglomeration of beast and magic. But as the charge leapt up over the nearby brush, Ben could see that each was actually a rider and a mount.

What?

The air parted as the wraith-beasts bore down upon them, lit with a sickly azure glow, leaving streams of light in their wake. Beasts that appeared canine but moved feline, dead holes of void where eyes should be. And upon the broad backs, humanoid riders moved with the mount’s charge, shadowed faces lost to secrets of the night. Each rider was armed with a spear-like weapon that gleamed coldly in the shifting moonlight.

Their advance was soundless. Their motion was like a trick of the eye – appearing now here, now there, now gone… now bearing down from above, a pale vision of death.

The first screams jolted Ben from his bewildered stare. Belying their ethereal appearance, the riders fell upon the nearest group of sailors, ripping men from their feet with snapping jaws and shredding spears.

They don’t have a chance!

Instantly, the Master Wizard thrust Chase behind him, shielding the boy’s eyes from the violence, pulling his own blade ready. Peering over his shoulder, he could see that Cecil had done the same for Porom. The two brothers found themselves back to back, swords held ready and the children between them.

Chaos ensued as the eerie blue wave of dead-silence crashed over the men. The air instantly filled with the sound of metal striking metal… the solid thunk of pierced bodies hitting the ground… the shrieks of the panic-stricken and dying… the quiet cry of Chase at Ben’s back.

The Master Wizard’s hand shook, fingers sweating around the grip of the sword.

I can’t see them!

Blurs flickered around him, desperation moved his blade. Ben managed a few clumsy blocks – one high, then low. But it was slow… too slow for the massive numbers of ghostly images that swept over the forest floor. There was little doubt that his lack of sword-training was going to catch up with him… right here and now.

I can’t feel them! Where are they?

He could hear Cecil behind him, blade ringing as he fended off blow after blow. The Paladin’s motion was smooth with inhuman grace, his sword flashing like a pulse of starlight through the shadows, never hesitating to strike its mark.

Something’s wrong!

With a massive growl, Ben thrust back the nearest attacker, throwing both rider and beast over on its side with the heave of his raw strength. Seeing a chance to strike, the Half-Lunar lifted his blade in both hands, point leveled down at the soft underbelly of the creature. With a hiss of slicing air, Onyx plunged down, staking straight through the ribs and pinning the beast to the ground.

Hun?!

Ben flinched back, eyes narrowed. No blood spilled. No writhing of beast upon the blade. It was as if there was nothing solid to strike at. Only a trickle of blue energy spreading from the point where the sword struck.

It can’t be…!

The rider had rolled away from Ben’s blow and was now on its feet only a yard away. With a sharp whistle, it commanded its mount. The beast leapt to its feet as if the sword in its side did not even exist, the dead eyes turning in fury upon the stunned Master Wizard.

Onyx didn’t even graze it!

Yanking his sword from the ground, Ben stumbled back, green eyes flicking over the glade in terrible realization. For if one of the creatures were immune to physical attacks, chances were, all of the enemies would be. And that meant…

Silver’s men are finished!

“Cecil!” Ben bellowed above the din of the battle.

He didn’t know why he shouted for his brother. Maybe it was to warn. Maybe it was in hopes that the Paladin’s superior sword technique would prevail where his lack of fighting knowledge couldn’t.

The young king’s reply was instantly disheartening, “Golbez, do something! I can’t hit them!”

Odin’s Blade!

“Ben! Watch out!” Chase’s shout filled his ears. Just in time to alert him to the rider and beast that were mounting a second attack. With others following close behind.

No thought. Simply instant reaction. Ben’s hands lifted, parting in a wide arc of flame, bursting forward to consume the oncoming charge. Waves of heat lit up the underside of the hanging branches, the flame sweeping around the sickly blue forms with the Wizard’s command of desperate fury.

Like the onslaught of steel blade, the flame seemed to wash over the beast and rider without causing any sort of harm. But something else had happened. Something so nearly imperceptible that only highly trained mage-sense could tell…

Now I feel you!

A ripple of shifting space peeled from around the riders. Like something being pulled from a protective pocket. The riders’ forms no longer shown with blue light.

I see! So it’s—

Before his musings ran full circle, a shadow dropped between him and the storming riders. Stunned, the Master Wizard only caught a glimpse of forest green eyes under a stream of black hair, flying with the speed of impossible motion. A curved blade swept into the fray, silent blur of pale light among the fountaining black blood of the beasts.

Spine-chilling howls broke the night air. One by one, the beast and riders fell prey to the flicker of man-shadow that danced between their darkness. Until finally, there was nothing but a lone figure standing among the clumps of lifeless shadows upon the ground.

Ben hissed, taking in a sharp breath.

He’s not one of the riders… but he’s certainly not one of the sailors from our ship.

“There is no time!” an accented voice spoke. “They will mount another attack.”

“Who..?” Cecil had turned his attention toward the stranger with upraised eyebrows.

The young warrior lifted his hands, spreading them in an arcane motion too quick to follow. Ben felt the shifting of air around them, sparks of light drawing patterns upon his inner mind. Soft and green.

A warding?

“I can only hold them back for a short while as we move,” the stranger spoke intently. “Gather your wounded. You must follow me.”

“To where?” the Paladin frowned.

“There’s no time to explain.”

Ben gazed at the strange green light that shone from the warrior’s hands. Already, the droves of blue-lit riders had vanished to the edge of the shadows, cast away by the power of the forest wards. Slanted eyes, youthful features and pointed ears marked the stranger as one of the Elven people. And yet…

There’s something different about him…

“Cecil,” the Half-Lunar’s voice rumbled. “There’s no chance to stand our ground here. Anywhere else would be better.”

“Quickly,” the Elf encouraged, he was already looking toward some forest trail that likely only his eyes could find.

“Okay… let me find Captain Silver and gather the men,” Cecil’s face was lined with concern. His white cape fluttered behind him as he turned on his heel, back towards what was left of the ship.

Chase and Porom peeked with wide eyes from around Ben’s cloak. At the stranger.

Seeing their look, the Elf addressed Ben, “There are many human refugees in the forest. There is a safe place warded. You can trust me to fight with you against the Daear.”

“The what?” Ben frowned in confusion. He could hear the sound of the men approaching, herded between the voices of Cecil and Captain Silver.

“I will explain later. For now, just follow,” with that, the Elf turned, flitting into the forest. Only the green light of his wards served as their guide.

Ch5-6 Seed of Mutiny

Caught within the folds of Athrylith power, the Daear leader froze.

“Listen up,” the incessant tapping of Pren’s boot heel accented her sharp command. “We’re now heading into the second phase of the plan.”

You call being holed up in this wasteland part of a ‘plan’? Where’s the deceit and manipulation? That’s my line of work.

Kip leaned one shoulder against the cold stone of the shattered wall, which might have been part of the outer defenses of the fortress of Troia once before. Now it lay strewn and scattered where the ground had cracked and shifted, leaving a deep gully of destruction through the center of the city. The darkening sky above seemed to reflect upon the gloomy aftermath of the once-great human establishment.

Bleh. Why couldn’t you have chosen somewhere a little more scenic?

On the other side of the ruined clearing, Joran leaned quietly upon a flat stretch of stone. Her arms were wrapped with a hug around her chest, as if she was trying to fend off cold. Or fear. Or both. The moment the Lunar girl stepped within the presence of Pren, any openness that Kip had won from her had vanished.

No doubt, bad relations going on there.

Kip met Pren for the first time a few days earlier. And instantly, she had annoyed him. It had to do with her overbearing haughtiness. In the way she looked down her nose at both himself and Joran. It lost her all respect in his eye.

So far, this ‘plan’ has been way beneath my qualifications. If it wasn’t for the fact that Golbez is involved, I would have bailed already.

Pren seemed to have elected herself the undisputed leader of the operation. And no real details of the big picture had been shared with him.

As if I was nothing more than some hireling to be dismissed.

O.M.E.G.A. crossed his arms with a disinterested frown. Something he knew infuriated Pren. It was in the furrow of her brow.

Well, she’s about to get a real big surprise… and I do love surprising people.

“The Dracolich was only halfway successful,” Pren continued. She fixed first Joran, then Kip, with a sharp glance. “It did bring the ship down. However, the troops were unable to capture any of our targets.”

Joran’s face was pale. “Golbez… he’s still alive?”

“Of course he’s alive,” Kip gave a quick quip. “The whole blasted ship could probably fall on his head and he’d walk away with merely a scratch.”

Joran gave him a startled stare.

He offered her a sly grin.

Pren’s frown penetrated the exchange, “You seem so sure of the Half-Blood’s abilities?”

“And you seem to underestimate them,” O.M.E.G.A. grinned more, pale light gleaming from the whites of his teeth. “Which is why your planning has failed. And will continue to fail… unless you adjust your tactics.”

“Silence,” the Daear grated. “If I wanted input from a Defective, which I do not, I would have ordered it.”

Defective?!

Kip’s single eye narrowed at Pren, glittering a colder shade of green.

You’ve just sealed yourself a done-deal, Pren-dear.

O.M.E.G.A. simply leaned back in silence. Not a flicker of betrayal crossed his face. But the thoughts churned in tightening circles within his mind.

It’s all about timing and detail… Something you obviously have no feel for.

Joran’s eyes were upon him, seeming to sense his growing irritation at the Daear. Or maybe she was looking at him with a hint of sympathy? After all, the Lunar girl was often the victim of Pren’s sharp tongue. She seemed sensitive to such things.

Let’s see…

O.M.E.G.A. twisted his face into a pitiful, wounded frown — despite the fact he could care less what the Daear really thought about him. Instantly, Joran’s face registered what became clearly concern and pity for him.

Hmmm…?

Catching Joran’s gaze with his single shadowy eye, Kip returned her expression with a look of fake gratefulness. Much to his surprise, the girl’s countenance grew even softer towards him than before.

Ten points for O.M.E.G.A. I really am racking them up today.

All of this was lost upon Pren, who was engrossed in her methodic pacing. Kip didn’t know much about the Daear as a group of people. But what he could see in their leader stated plainly that they had very little consideration for the whims of emotion.

That’s where you lose… and I win. Soon enough… the girl will be under my sway. And Incrytan will be so far out of your reach that you’ll only be able to wonder how it happened.

“I have reports that the Half-Elf mercenary has been meddling again,” Pren’s voice was dark, seeped with disapproval. “He has managed to ward off the ground troops and lead our targets away from the crash site.”

Interesting…

Seconding Kip’s thoughts, Joran was now leaning forward. No doubt, to find any information she could about the whereabouts of her lost love.

“Chances are that the group will be taken to the Troian refugee camp at the west end of the forest,” the Daear continued. “If that is the case, we must ready ourselves for a breaching of the fortress. The Paladin King will likely gather what forces he can from the refugees and attempt to reclaim the city.”

“Refugee camp? So…” Kip oozed a self-amused look. “Some of the humans survived your assault on Troia?”

Pren pursed her lips, “That is correct.”

“Sloppy work, Pren-dear. I’d have expected better out of you.” A slight smirk. That’s all it would take.

“Do not call me ‘dear’.” Pren’s hand whipped around, finger leveled in fierce warning at his face. Teeth bared, her eyes flashed in smoldering fury. “Next time, I’ll cut your insolent tongue from your wretched mouth.”

Joran caught her breath, a look of terror blanching her smooth face.

Calm and collected, Kip gave the finger a quiet glance. “Whatever you say…”

Pren turned her back to him. Dismissal. Or so she thought.

“…Pren-dear…” O.M.E.G.A.’s voice followed her, an edge of power etched into the phrase. A voice that resounded through the mind, leaving no room for anything else. A voice that thrust two joined words at the Daear’s back like a knife.

Caught within the folds of Athrylith power, the Daear leader froze. Her face shown with a fleeting moment of panic as she fought to regain her composure.

Yes. Voice… and voice alone can do that.

Joran’s eyes were round, flicking from the alarm on Pren’s face to the calm composure on Kip’s. It was obvious that the Lunar had never seen the Daear lacking a second’s worth of self-confidence.

You don’t know the beginning of my power, Pren-dear. But you’ll learn quickly enough.

With merely a thought, O.M.E.G.A. released the tension in the room.

Perhaps now, you will think twice before you throw threats at me… especially ones that you cannot back up.

When Pren faced him, it was accompanied by an intense, searching look. Straight into his face.

I have to admit… you’ve got some guts.

“Joran,” the Daear turned on the Lunar girl, still fighting for composure and lost ground. Pren seemed suddenly disinclined to aim her commands at the grin of the O.M.E.G.A. “You two will ready our prisoner to be moved from Troia to Newidmynydd. We will be transporting her first thing in the morning. Is that understood?”

“Y-yes…” The Lunar girl opened her mouth, head bobbing slightly in compliance. Then her gaze drifted past the Daear’s shoulder, up to Kip.

Guts… that I plan to spill all over the place… sometime in the near future.

He was making mocking faces at Pren’s back.

But, not just yet. You’re still useful to me.

Joran’s eyes bugged out as they focused on Kip’s disrespect, mouth clamping shut with a puff of her cheeks. There was a sudden strain as the girl fought to keep from laughing out loud. It seemed to be the first time that she had almost laughed in a long, long time.

You see, Pren-dear, you’re the perfect playing piece. Your coldness gives Joran a reason to want to come to me.

The Daear turned on her heel sharply, only to find a solid, smug expression on Kip’s face.

You’re practically gift-wrapping Incrytan for me.

Joran put a hand over her mouth, looking down at her feet. Her face was red with suppressed laughter. The kind of laughter that comes when stress is so heavy that the slightest thing can tip a person off into gales.

“Oh, and one more thing, Pren-dear,” a hint of satisfaction played on his lips, “How come one mere Half-Elf can turn away two dozen of your ground troops with only a handful of wards?”

A snort of disgust flared Pren’s nose. She barked only one command as she began to fast-walk towards the door, “See that the prisoner is ready by dawn.”

And then he was alone with Joran once more.

The Lunar girl’s eyes were fixed on Kip, a muddle of uncertainty and amazement. When she finally did speak, it came as one breathy word, “Wow!”

“What’s that?” O.M.E.G.A.’s voice was laced with fake modesty.

“I can’t believe you faced Pren like that!” Joran shook her head.

“Why not? She annoys me,” Kip fixed her under his one-eyed gaze. “Doesn’t she annoy you?”

“Well…” the girl squirmed a little.

He could see that Joran was not exactly sure of what had taken place between himself and the Daear. Mind magics were often hard to pinpoint by non- Athrylith. But she could sense enough to know it had been a type of magic beyond her scope.

“Or do you like to let her order you around?” he nudged. A small nudge. But enough to get the ball rolling.

“I don’t let her order me around!” Joran’s face grew flushed.

“Then what do you call it?” O.M.E.G.A. tilted his head.

“I’m… just working with Pren… because Sparrow said it was the best thing to do…”

“Ah, so you let Sparrow order you around?”

“Uh!?” she looked frustrated.

So he backed off a little, “Now, now… who is this Sparrow person to tell you what is the best thing to do anyhow?”

“I’m not sure… but she does seem to know things. She was the one that told me about Incrytan and the danger that Golbez was in. She told me to come to the Blue Planet… and when I got here, she said that the Daear would be willing to help…” the girl frowned slowly.

This Sparrow person… seems to know how to play the cards. I wonder who she is.

“Help wipe out the humans, you mean,” he stated firmly.

Joran took in a sharp breath.

“Face it… Pren and her party have a grudge. It’s way too obvious to miss,” O.M.E.G.A. gave her a solemn look. “They hate the humans. They hate the Lunars. They’re only in this to get a lot of people hurt. You can see that’s happening already.”

“Yes…” Joran’s voice quavered.

“And it’s going to keep happening until you do something about it.”

“Me? How?” she squinted. “I don’t understand?”

“Joran…” a soft Athrylith-purr rose in his voice, “You’re the one that controls Incrytan. Don’t you see? This is all in your hands.”

Her eyes widened as the words gripped her senses. So easily, she began to sway. “Maybe…”

“They can’t do anything without you.”

“Well…” she still sounded uncertain. But the seed of mutiny had been planted. “Where would I go? I don’t know anything about the Blue Planet.”

“But, I do,” Kip told her with an easy grin.

“You do?” surprise leapt into Joran’s voice.

“Of course I do,” he assured her. “I spent a good bit of time here on the Blue Planet before I got mixed up in Zot.”

“Oh…?” Thoughts flickered behind her eyes. Sizing the situation up. Mulling over things.

Easy does it…

When she spoke again, it was testing the waters, “But aren’t you under Pren’s command?”

“I already told you,” his mouth became a firm line, “I take commands from no one.”

Her mouth shut closed with a click.

“But I also told you that I would help you,” his voice took on a warm, soothing tone. “And a promise is a promise.”

“Then…” the girl’s face peered up at the O.M.E.G.A., looking hopeful. “If I left, would you come with me?”

A surge of victory rushed through his body. He had to fight to keep the expression off his face. “Of course I would, Joran.”

You know you’re good when you’ve got them practically begging to do what you want them to do…

Relief washed over Joran’s face. Relief mingled with happiness.

But O.M.E.G.A. had already sealed his heart away from such things. His voice was level as he reached out and put his hand on her shoulder, leading her to a quiet place for discussion, “Let us talk about… a real plan.”

Ch5-7 Forest Guide

“I am called Deric,” the Ranger replied shortly.

“Sooooooooooooo,” Edge dropped full emphasis on the last sound of the word. It was a habit of his that bugged the hell out of Gramps. But girls seemed to like it. So there you had it. “You mind telling us where we’re going?”

“Almost there,” the accented common of the Elven Ranger drifted back over one shoulder. Forest green cape fluttered as he walked, blending in and out of the night treescape. There was something very deliberate about each step the Elf made — even the placement of his boots upon the ground was calculated.

And it’s seriously annoying…

“That’s not what I asked,” the Ninja muttered darkly. Then he turned his grey eyes accusingly towards Cecil. “Couldn’t you have come up with something better than this? Strange guy appears out of the forest. Strange guy tells us to follow him into forest… We follow and are never seen again?”

All except for Golbez… who is probably the one behind all this. I just know he’ll be laughing it up as his dark minions pick the flesh from our bones.

The Paladin grimaced. “Edge, we didn’t really have a lot of choice in this. Silver’s men were getting wasted. And from what I saw, we’re going to need some real tactics and knowledge to be able to face down those creatures… whatever they were.”

Daear,” the Elf spoke quietly.

“They are?” Edge attempted to repeat. “They are what?”

“No… Da-ear,” he corrected, stressing the pronunciation to sound something like ‘Day-Are’. “It is what they are called. They were once spirit people of the Blue Planet.”

“Once?” Cecil turned his gaze on the Ranger. “That implies that they aren’t anymore?”

“No,” the Elf gave a deepening frown. He adjusted a strap on one of his shoulders before continuing. “The Daear were of the same origins of the Elven people. But, now… they have fallen to decay.”

“Tell me something we don’t know,” Edge grumbled.

The Paladin frowned in disapproval. But the Ninja gave it no more heed than usual. Instead, he pulled his pace up to match the Ranger. It was doubly annoying that the Elf took such long strides when he was walking.

Damn tall people. No consideration for the vertically challenged of the world.

“So tell me,” Edge pressed, “Why are you helping us out? I thought Elves didn’t give a rat’s tail for humans.”

“That is not entirely true,” the Elf responded quickly.

“Then what is true?”

“Humans and Elves simply have not had the opportunity to find common ground yet. But it can be done,” the Ranger scowled. “It is people who think in your manner that allow the divide to continue to exist.”

The Ninja King looked put-off at the reprimand. “Then where’s the proof that Elves have interest in relations with humans?”

The Ranger paused, for the first time in their journey, and turned to face Edge. His slanted green eyes flashed as he spoke. “I am half human. I am also half Elf. Is that proof enough?”

Owned.

Edge winced, attempting a gracious withdraw, “Yeah. I suppose that’s good enough.”

Cecil, however, was looking at the Half-Elf with a newfound interest.

Half-breeds draw other half-breeds, I suppose. That whole birds of a feather thing. Never did quite get it.

“What is your name?” the Paladin’s tone held a hint of respect.

“I am called Deric,” the Ranger replied shortly. He looked about ready to turn and continue walking.

“I am Cecil Harvey,” the young King intercepted. Obviously, the Paladin had already made up his mind about where to put his trust. He extended his hand to the Ranger in greeting.

“Ah,” Deric murmured. He took the hand with a quick clasp but did not shake it. “Cecil Harvey. The Paladin King of Baron. Your victories have reached even the ears of the forest people.”

Which wouldn’t be that hard… considering you have ears the size of rice bowls.

“Well…” Cecil broke off in a moment of sincere modesty.

That’s something I’ve gotta break him of one day. He still doesn’t know how to throw his weight around like a proper king.

“Then certainly you’ve heard of me, too!” the Ninja tossed his ego into the ring. Then inflated it.

Deric passed a patient eye over the shorter man. “Maybe.”

“King Edge of Eblan!” he thumbed back at himself before brushing his fingers through the poof of his bangs.

“Indeed,” the Half-Elf’s expression hinted amusement, “We have heard that you are a skilled Ninja…”

Edge beamed, opening his mouth to reply.

“..and a poor womanizer,” the Ranger finished, pulling his cloak up around his collar with a quick tug.

The Ninja’s mouth dropped fully open and hung.

Cecil grinned in quite amusement, “It would seem your people have a pretty reliable source of information.”

Edge’s glare gleamed daggers at the Paladin. But his long-time companion’s easy smile was enough to diffuse any real anger into a heated sigh.

Deric began to walk again, this time, respectfully directing his speech towards Cecil, “I have seen a few of your men stationed among the refugees of the Troian nation.”

Refugees?

Edge furrowed his brow. It was hard to think of the whole nation of Troia cast out of their home. Troia… a great fortress-city that had been established upon the strength of the feminine will. Lead by the legendary High Clerics — a group of women that rivaled the authority of any king.

A group of women now cast from their home. Women who had now become…

Babes in distress! A whole city of them, too!

A giddy grin flashed across the Ninja’s face. A look that was, luckily enough, veiled by the shadows of the nighttime forest. And no sooner had the thought come than the pang begin again, in the center of his chest.

But… what’s a whole city of babes in distress got to offer… when Rydia’s in trouble?

Edge had found himself pulled back to earth more and more at the thought of the beautiful green-haired Caller girl… out there somewhere in the world… alone and in enemy hands. There was little doubt in his mind that the Daear probably knew something of her whereabouts.

Or at least they’d know whose ass needs the official Ninja kicking.

He had already planned out exactly what he was going to do. Every move down to the finishing blow.

Just let me fight the bastard. I’ll make it one for the history books.

Especially since he had been forced to swallow his better judgment and group up with Golbez to get the job done.

The things I must endure for true love…

The conversation between the Ranger and Paladin had already moved on without him. Talk of the refugee camp in the forest. How Deric had set wards around the perimeter that could fend off the invading riders of the Daear. Of the inability that they had faced to wound the Daear troops in battle.

“Yes, I noticed that,” Cecil gave a grim nod to the Half-Elf. “But somehow, you managed to fight them off at the end? Was it magic… or your sword?”

“No. And honestly,” Deric paused with a thoughtful face, “I don’t know exactly what did happen. I believe that the Daear are shielded behind some outside force. It seemed to be one of your mages that broke through that shield during the battle.”

“Mages?”

“Yes, the tall, white-haired mage in your group.”

“Golbez?” the Paladin blinked.

Edge involuntarily shivered.

Deric turned with a frown, face lacking recognition at the sound of the name, “Who?”

Apparently the floppy-ears didn’t hear about the name of the once great Destroyer of Nations, then?

Cecil turned and pointed behind them. The Master Wizard was silently walking a few yards back, one big hand placed on Chase and Porom’s shoulder. If the Ninja didn’t know better, it almost seemed as if Golbez was attempting to comfort the children.

Nah… probably just sucking on their soul in disguise.

“Yes,” Deric nodded. “Yes, it was him.”

The Paladin gave a musing face, “If Golbez knows how to remove the shielding on the Daear, then that means…”

“There’s a possibility to fight them,” Edge finished eagerly.

Yes, please.

“If that is true, it would certainly turn the tide,” the Half-Elf perked up at the thought. “So far, all we’ve been able to do is hold our ground against the forces by remaining warded in one place. The Clerics of Troia do not dare to send their people into the forest to meet in battle with the Daear.”

“And that can’t last long before starvation sets in,” Cecil speculated.

“Yes…”

“We will have to see what information we can find from Golbez and then discuss a plan of battle with the Clerics. If the Daear troops were defeated once, it can happen again,” the Paladin stated.

“Ho there,” Captain Silver’s voice suddenly broke into the conversation from behind. She paced up to the front of the group and gave the Half-Elf a wrinkled-nose frown. “How long til we dock? We’ve got wounded in tow and a lot of uneasy men back there.”

“Not long from now,” Deric answered.

“Can you keep them under hand a little while longer, Captain?” Cecil’s voice was concerned.

“Working on it,” she huffed at him. “First you board Golbez on my ship. Then the ship goes down. Then we gets attacked. And now we’re following a Tree-hugger through the blasted Troian forest. You owe me big time, Paladin.”

The young king rubbed the back of his head with a sheepish look. Edge just watched with a silent curiosity.

I wonder who that dame is. Cecil sure lets her mouth run him into the ground…

Feeling the Ninja’s gaze upon her, the Captain turned and gave him a scowl. “Keep your eyes to yourself, matey. There ain’t nothing here that you could earn yourself even if you worked a lifetime.”

“Tsk…” Edge scowled back.

With her own indelicate sound, Captain Silver headed back down the ranks to her men.

After a moment of silence, Deric mused aloud, “The Paladin King of Baron takes up with… interesting… company.”

“Well…” Cecil grimaced. “It’s who you know that will pull you through. And sometimes the most trustworthy people are the ones you least expect.”

“Whatever,” Edge smirked, nudging his companion with one elbow. “Fess up, Cecil. You probably danced more than a few rounds with her in your girl-hopping days.”

“Girl-hopping!?” the Paladin turned instantly with a mortified look.

“You trying to tell me you didn’t let a few babes take their proper turn?”

“Absolutely not!”

“Alright, alright,” the Ninja continued his award-winning smirk. “Don’t hyperventilate yourself.”

I love doing that to him. The look on his face is absolutely priceless.

That’s when the pale green glow first streamed down through the treeline in front of them, distracting Edge from his target of merciless pestering. It appeared to be some strange, ever moving train of light, shifting in intensity between the picket-line of dark tree trunks.

Catching his breath, the Ninja asked, “What is that?”

“This is the warding,” Deric replied.

“Eh…” Edge frowned suspiciously ahead. Eyes shifting to one side, he could see Cecil walking, no hesitation in his stride. The pale light cast strange reflections off the Paladin’s hair, his eyes seeming somehow greener than before.

Are you really going for this, Cecil?

As the two approached, the light rippled and pulled back. A curtain of shimmering green parting for their entrance.

Okay… I guess you are.

Not to be outdone, the Ninja forced one foot in front of the other. Brows lowering, he followed them under the arch of warding runes. On the other side, a vast world of ancient wonder opened before his astonished eyes.

The Ranger gently intoned, “Welcome, human-kin to the once-settlement of Yáramar.”