Ch6-1 The High Clerics of Troia

“I will vouch for Golbez… on my personal honor.”

Yáramar had once been an ancient Elven city.

It didn’t take a scholar to see this – everything within the gently molded form of the forest glade spoke of an Elven touch. And though Cecil knew very little about the Elven culture, he could still sense the stirring mystic feeling that clung to the decadent structures at the base of the great trees.

I didn’t know that any of the trees in the Troian forest had grown so tall…

‘Tall’ was an understatement. Though the clearing was large enough to house a full city, every inch of the area was sheltered by the branches of the four enormous trees that grew in the center. It felt as if the entire forest had bowed back in respect, for no wayward bush or sapling dared to set its roots inside the guarded area.

How did they manage to build something like this?

Very little of the actual city had  been built upon the ground — only a few small sentry stations and the entrance to the rest of the settlement. A settlement that seemed to have been directly sculpted into the living wood of the giant trees.

Amazing…

Winding stairs cascaded in vast arcs over the face of the brazen bark. What appeared to be vertical lifts also dotted the structure. Once having been operated through the use of magic, they now sat dormant and unmoving. Structures that could be best classified as “rooms” somehow stretched naturally between the boughs and vines of the canopy high above. Though pale from the passage of time, the leaves still appeared to give off some sort of illumination.

As if this place is waiting… for its people to return someday.

“Odin’s Blade!” Golbez gasped from somewhere not too far behind.

Cecil turned his head at the sound, only to find his brother staring upwards in child-like wonder. An expression that was almost exactly mirrored on the faces of Chase and Porom as they both remained clutching the hem of the Master Wizard’s cloak.

“So pretty!” the White Mage whispered, a soft sound of breath between her lips.

Somehow, despite the horrors of the airship crash and the battle in the forest, all the dark images were gently washed away in the glow that shifted down from above. Even Cecil could feel it — a safe, restorative warmth that soothed the troubles of his heart. And just for a moment, it put his mind at ease.

“But this place is abandoned?” Cecil heard his voice say. It seemed to come from over a great distance.

“Yes,” Deric’s voice was somber. “My people were forced to leave this place at the beginning of the Great Exile.”

“Exile?” Golbez’s eyes focused upon the Half-Elf intensely. As if the word roused something very deeply rooted within him.

“That is correct,” the Ranger turned to observe the Master Wizard’s reaction. Then he continued, “During one of the ancient battles, there was a curse placed upon the Elves by the Daear because the Elves chose to side with the Humans’ plight. It said that we should be cast from our homeland for as long as the Daear spirit remains dominant to the Blue Planet.”

“But how is it that you’re here in the city?” the Half-Lunar mused thoughtfully.

Deric replied, “I believe it is my Half-Elf heritage. The Elf blood allows me to manipulate the wards to enter the city. The human blood keeps me from being bound by the curse.”

“So… the human half has actual benefits?” Golbez seemed surprised. By the glint in his eyes, he seemed to be searching for information that he could apply to his own human half.

“As far as I have determined,” came the patient answer, “Both sides are of equal value. I am as I was meant to be.”

The Master Wizard fell silent, the motion of thoughts churning behind his deep eyes. Cecil could only join in the feeling from a distance. Admitting to his own half-heritage was not something that the Paladin openly did. It was odd to hear someone else speak so positively of such a thing.

He seems to believe being of mixed blood is something to be proud of. Almost something of great worth.

Further thoughts were cut short by the hazy image of a group of people approaching them from across the clearing. It didn’t take Cecil long to decipher the colors enameled onto burnished plates of armor – Troian troops, without a doubt.

And… is it… a Red Wing?

The Paladin squinted at the single out-of-place figure, clad in the red and gold of the Baronian air troops. His memory sputtered sporadically, finally making sense of the appearance of one of his own soldiers there amongst the Troian group.

That’s right. The ship I sent to Troia to transport the Clerics to the Meeting of Nations. It never reported back… and we wondered if it was just late in arrival.

From the look of the young Red Wing’s armor, he had been through the same battles as his Troian counterparts. The expression under the golden helm shifted into instant surprise as the soldier recognized his king among the newcomers to the Elven city.

I wonder if that means that the ship I deployed is still located somewhere nearby?

Straightening, the young Red Wing threw up a salute, “Your Majesty, King Cecil!”

The Troian guards stopped and turned. They were eyeing the Baronian with a look that plainly accused him of eating the wrong kind of mushroom earlier that day.

And who could blame them… this is the last place that anyone would expect me to turn up.

Cecil saluted in return, face grim as he murmured, “At ease.”

Golbez was watching the whole exchange with a wrinkled brow. Something that looked like distaste.

The Troians stared at each other, seeming uncertain as to what they should do in response. Finally, one turned to Cecil, inquiring, “You are King Cecil of Baron?”

“That is correct,” the Paladin nodded slowly. “We have come to aid Troia in battle.”

A hopeful expression shifted across the faces of the troops. “Then, you have brought an army with you?”

Er… uh… crud.

Deciding not to answer one way or the other, Cecil looked the soldier in the eyes, “I wish to request council with the High Clerics in order to discuss means of defense and possible reclamation of your city.”

An excited murmur broke out between the soldiers. He could see that the idea of retaking Troia was one that was met with approval by this particular set of troops.

Chances are, they represent the feeling of the majority of the Troians, then.

“Absolutely, Your Majesty,” one of the Troians finally replied, bowing deeply. She turned with a military step. “Please follow, this way.”

I think with the right tactics employed, we should be able to win back ground relatively quickly. Especially with troops so willing to take up arms.

The Red Wing had already claimed his station, standing next to the Paladin King as escort. They made their way further under the spreading branches of the huge trees, a strange rag-tag party of kings, mages, captains and sailors. As they strode among the roots, the first signs of other people could be seen.

How long have they been here, I wonder?

The peasants of the city had found places of residence among the wooden structures at the base of the trees. Eyes peered curiously at the martial parade as it strode past, faces drawn with the distress of having lost all home and comfort. Faces that watched them, pleading that the ones chosen for protection might have the strength to right all wrongs in the world.

That the people might claim their city once again.

Before long, they had made their way into an area of the root-structure that looked to have once been used as a gathering spot for a large number of people. The branches swept low here and were hung with thick, iridescent vines. A small silver pool reflected the soft light that shimmered down from the leaves. The effect cast a gentle glow over the whole area from above and below.

The troops paused at the arched entrance, turning to look to the Paladin for further instruction. One of the Troians spoke up, “Shall I announce your arrival, Your Majesty?”

“Yes,” Cecil nodded. “As long as it is an acceptable time for the Clerics.”

“I doubt that they would turn Your Majesty away, no matter the time of day,” she replied. Then with a heel-pivot, she marched through the arch to carry out her duty.

Cecil peered around, eyes focusing on the blur of faces around him. There were still a lot of wounded and frightened men in Silver’s group – no doubt something needed to be done for them. But asking after aid and refuge, rather than assuming it, was only polite.

And if I remember correctly, the Clerics are big on etiquette.

“Edge, Captain Silver… Golbez…” the Paladin said in a quiet voice, “You will accompany me in the audience with the Clerics.”

“Me?” his brother’s eyes widened slightly in response. As if Golbez had not expected to be singled out to join in such an assembly. And he wasn’t too sure if it was a good thing to have been invited.

“Yes… just remember to mind your manners,” Cecil found himself warning in a brotherly voice. As if he was the eldest, rather than the other way around.

I’m not sure how they’re going to feel about Golbez being part of our group.

The Master Wizard nodded slowly, looking slightly nervous at the prospect.

“And you, sir,” Cecil turned towards the Red Wing that had remained at his side.

The soldier straightened with a stiff look.

“What is your name?” Knowing the names of his men had always been important to him.

“Redford, Your Majesty,” he replied quickly.

“A newer recruit?” Cecil asked. Anyone he needed to ask about their name had not been a part of the Red Wings very long. He knew all the older men… he had served with many of them during his days as Captain of the Red Wings. There had been a time he had known them all.

Am I really getting that far behind?

“Near to six months in service of the Red Wings, sir,” Redford said, unflinching under the eyes of his king.

“I see,” the Paladin nodded, looking him over one last time. “Redford, you will also accompany us into the meeting.”

I’d like to hear first-hand what happened with my ship and men, if nothing else…

“Y-yes, Your Majesty!” Redford seemed surprised by the order. Straightening, he gave a salute and remained at attention close to the Paladin’s side.

Finally, the Troian soldier reappeared from between the rises of the arch. With a low nod, she motioned for the group to enter through. Striding forward with the illusion of a sure step, the Paladin King led the way. Redford paced at his side, just slightly behind. Deric, Edge, Silver and Golbez followed in a silent procession.

They were met in the middle of the ring by a group of shrouded figures. Long violet robes swathed their bodies, blooming sleeves spilling down from around their delicate hands. Hoods veiled across their white foreheads, held in place by a single gem at the peak. Only the quiet, pale faces shown from within the folds of the cloth, each holding a sense of timelessness.

The High Clerics of Troia…

“Honored Matrons,” Cecil stepped forward, pausing before giving a low military bow. He could feel the motion behind him as the others followed his example.

The solemn air was broken by the soft sound of a giggle. And a shifting of the draped women from in front.

What..?

Managing to make a glance behind him, Cecil could see that Golbez had become the object of attention. The Master Wizard’s face was flushed bright red as he up righted himself from where he had just attempted – and obviously failed – at performing a proper bow of his own.

Cecil winced.

Ugh… didn’t they teach him proper forms of respect in Zot?

As the Paladin straightened from his bow, he could see the faces of the Clerics reflected with mild amusement, almost sympathy, at his brother’s stumbling. The one who had giggled openly had a hand over her mouth, violet eyes shimmering in mirth.

“King Cecil… King Edge…” the eldest of the Clerics was the first to regain her composure. “And companions. We welcome you to our humble outpost… wishing we could greet you upon better circumstances.”

“Yes,” the young king nodded. “Your nation has my deepest regrets for all that it has endured as of late. If I had been aware of your situation, I would have brought aid sooner…”

“Then you have brought troops to aid in our plight?”

“Truthfully,” Cecil swallowed the lump in his throat. “I didn’t know that your city had been taken until I reached the forest. I only have a ship’s crew and a few men under my lead. Our ship crashed during an attack and a number of our own men were wounded…”

“So there are… no troops…?” another Cleric asked, her voice wavering.

“I’m afraid not…” the Paladin blanched slightly.

I guess they just assumed if I was here… so was my army…

A wave of disappointment swept over the hooded faces. Soft disheartened murmurs began to pass through the group of women, brows furrowed in pressured concern.

“But you do have troops of your own that are still in fighting condition, yes?” Cecil struggled to regain some sense of morale through the rise of distress.

“Yes,” the first Cleric answered softly. “Yes, but we have lost many. And we have been unable to effectively fight the enemy thus far… for magical shields are keeping the Daear protected against common means of attack. We would not risk more lives in a losing battle. The troops are already frightened enough as it is.”

“What if I told you that I believe we know a way of pulling down the Daear shields?” the Paladin intoned calmly.

“You do?” asked another Cleric in surprise. The one with violet eyes.

Cecil turned to peer back over his shoulder, taking a deep breath.

Now or never…

“This is my brother, the Master Wizard Golbez Ya,” the Paladin informed them.

It was the first time. The first time Cecil had ever really admitted it to a group of other people using his own words. A wave of anxiety pounded against the back of his head… almost making him ill.

How will they respond?

As the women’s first startled murmurs broke the air, Cecil could make out the tortured expression on his brother’s face. Golbez’s eyes were locked upon the ground, his hands nervously working open-then-closed at his sides.

The Golbez?” the eldest Cleric finally found her voice. Sharp-hawk eyes pierced the down-turned face of the Master Wizard.

“Yes. He is the one that discovered the way to break through the shielding,” Cecil answered in his brother’s stead. “He has offered to give his aid against the troops of the Daear.”

The Paladin’s eyes shifted towards Golbez, holding his breath. He knew that no such aid had been formally offered… and he could only hope that the Master Wizard was prudent enough not to object in front of the Clerics.

Please… don’t blow it, Golbez… not now.

Much to Cecil’s relief, his brother remained unmoving, eyes fixed on the ground. He seemed almost humble, standing there with the presence of the High Clerics of Troia bearing down upon him. If humility could be possible from someone like Golbez.

“I see,” the Cleric replied. Then she followed it up with the single-most important question, “How do you know he can be trusted?”

Golbez’s face blanched. As if someone had just stabbed him straight through the chest.

And now that the question stood there between them, Cecil found himself floundering for an answer.

Honestly… I… don’t really know… but…

The Paladin lifted his chin, no trace of his internal confusion showing. “I will vouch for Golbez… on my personal honor.”

All eyes fell upon Cecil in that long, uncomfortable moment. He didn’t need to turn around to know that Golbez’s astounded stare was among them.

Finally, the eldest Cleric stirred from within the silence. Her voice was steady as she replied, “We will need to call a council to discuss this turn of events.”

Cecil felt a mix of emotion with the answer. Relieved that it was not an outright “no”. But also chafed at the thought that faster action was not being decided upon.

This is… their people… and their kingdom. There is not much I can do without their consent. Though we could really use the help of the Troian army for this…

The Paladin gave a low bow to offer his respect on their choice of the matter, “As you say, Honored Matron.”

Still, we cannot stay here very long… no matter if the Daear are out there. We don’t have much time. The Crystal of Troia has been destroyed… there are still the Crystals of Fabul and Damcyan left to strike at.

The eldest Cleric was giving the Troian solider orders to secure Silver’s men and to find the kingly guests a place to rest and recover. But all the words seemed to bleed through the air, then straight out of Cecil’s mind.

So much hinged upon the choice of so few….

The Clerics were leaving. His bow came automatically.

As the Troian solider motioned for their group to follow, Cecil found himself striding through the arched door next to his brother. The Master Wizard’s deep eyes lingered upon him from above, leaving a trail of prickles across his skin.

“Thank you, Cecil,” Golbez’s words were simple, yet heartfelt.

Staring at the dark shape by his side, Cecil couldn’t tell if it had been an actual voice speaking. Or if it had been nothing more than a tickle in the back of his mind.

Either way, the Paladin felt a hint of a smile on his face.

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Ch6-2 Opal

A child lay on either side of him, curled up within the folds of his heavy green cloak.

Ben rarely slept.

And when he did, it was never for a long period of time. He didn’t exactly know why… just that he had always been that way since waking from Zeromus’ control. It was possible that this had been part of the alterations that were built into him. Afterall, a creature that could function on minimal sleep was much more valuable than one that required hours of rest every night.

No matter how it happened, Ben rarely slept.

It’s better that way. It’s better than facing the dreams…

Dreams of darkness. Of shadows that reached choking, ghastly tendrils around him, only to cast him beneath the waves of murky terror within his mind. And then came the flashes of what might have been his lost memory.

Memory of Zot? Memory of a time before that? Memory of things that had never really happened? He could never tell.

The last thing he wanted to do was remain asleep long enough to make sense of it all.

So when the rest of the party had collapsed in exhaustion at the root of the great tree, Ben remained awake. Watchful… with Lunar-green eyes that glittered in the pale light that drifted down through the branches above.

A child lay on either side of him, curled up within the folds of his heavy green cloak.

Chase’s face was serene as he slept. One little arm had sprawled across Ben’s chest, the boy’s hand clutching at the hem of the cloak much like he would during the waking hours. A halo of gold seemed to reflect from the sheen of his sandy-brown hair.

Poor child… he should not have come to see such terrible things as he has on this journey. But what could I do? I didn’t know he had stowed away on the ship.

Porom seemed a little more troubled in her sleep. Her round face squinted, even with eyes closed. Though she didn’t hold fast to Ben like Chase did, she lay very close to the Master Wizard, the shape of her body curled into a tight ball at his side. Her breathing stirred in strange patterns from time to time.

Maybe she has bad dreams, too?

Scattered along uneven rows in the grass, Ben could make out the unmoving lumps of the others who were sleeping. There was Captain Silver… and King Edge… and Cecil… though he couldn’t tell who was who in the tricks of the shadow. They had all been so tired at the closing of the meeting that most of them had fallen asleep under the comfort of their cloaks the moment their head touched the ground.

How peaceful it must be… to sleep like they do.

All that was left for Ben to do, like he did every night, was await the rising sun.

Do not dare to move…

Until then, he had to lie very still.

Do not dare to breathe…

Then maybe his dark thoughts would not discover him from where they stalked in the overhanging shadows.

Or else you may find that nightmares come true…

The sound of Porom turning and murmuring in her sleep drew Ben out of the depths of his mind. The Half-Lunar peered down at the girl, and seeing that her feet had come uncovered, he rearranged the cloak to secure her warmth.

Strange human child. A White Mage — she should have no liking for a once Dark Lord. Yet…

There she was curled up at his side. Just as trusting as the young Page boy. And Ben couldn’t fathom it. Not even for a moment.

Not that I’d let anything hurt them…

Over the short time he had spent upon the Blue Planet, the thought of causing human children harm had grown more and more repulsive in Ben’s mind. There was something about their easy laughter and warm smiles… their overwhelming curiosity – the only curiosity that seemed to match his own. And the way they were so innocent and trusting…

Even to creatures like me… who deserve nothing from them.

Ben smoothed down the cloak over the top of the girl, leaning back against the tree root. Then he gave a soft sigh, “Humans are strange…”

“You would probably think so,” a soft voice replied, from somewhere behind him. Within the tree branches.

“Eh?” Ben attempted to turn and address the voice. But he found himself unable to move, with two children sleeping on either side.

A gentle sound of muffled laughter met his best efforts. With a quiet scuff of boots, a small hooded figure dropped down from the darkened side of the roots just within the Half-Lunar’s line of sight. Instantly, he recognized the robes as belonging to one of the Clerics that they had met with earlier that night.

She stood, observing him from a few yards away. There was a sense of wariness. And of interest. The shimmer of violet in her eyes gave it all away. “You… are really the Master Wizard Golbez?”

“Um…” In a flash, Ben was acutely aware of the way he must have looked. Two sleeping children pinning him down against the tree. Disheveled white hair and soiled clothes after the long day of travel and battle. “I… am?”

A flicker of a young smile shown from under the hood. Instantly, he could see that all traces of etiquette had faded now that the Cleric was not in the meeting hall. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

“You… were?” he was taken aback. Too surprised to hide that he was surprised.

The Cleric didn’t answer his question. She simply plowed on ahead, “My name is Opal. I’ve come here to aid you and your brother in the recapture of our city.”

Ben blinked. “Oh? Then the council agreed to fight alongside of us?”

“Not… exactly,” she frowned, peering around quietly. “That’s why I’ve come here.”

A lump caught in his throat as he echoed, “Not exactly? What… do you mean?”

“I mean, they don’t want to send our troops out,” Opal gave him a long glance, her face tinged with worry. Maybe worried that he would get angry at what she had to say. “We met on it and there was a vote. There were a few of us who wanted to make our move, but the majority decided it was too dangerous at this point… especially with untested strategies.”

She’s just being nice… the truth is, they don’t trust me near their people. And she won’t admit it.

“What do they think they’re going to be able to accomplish by waiting here longer?” he asked, keeping the emotion out of his voice.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “But if we don’t get out of this siege soon, people are going to starve. We have very little in the way of supplies…. and a lot of wounded people.”

He nodded slowly. Morosely. “I know.”

“Is it true…” her voice shifted in tone. A change in topic. “Is it true that you know a way to break through the shields to defeat the Daear?”

“Well… yes,” Ben took in a slow, deep breath.

Explaining the whole thing to her would be nearly impossible. So he simply broke it down the best that he could.

“You see, I believe this ‘shield’ that they are using is actually a sort of dimensional pocketing magic,” he began. “In essence, they have found a way to slip in between the folds of two parallel dimensions, far enough that they cannot be struck at my normal means. However, it seems that their pockets are rather unstable. And all it takes is a good, high-powered blast of magic to pull down the shield.”

“Is that so?” she was leaning forward, a finger on her chin.

“Yes… I saw it happen with my own magic. However, I believe this will only leave them open to attack for a short while before the shield reestablishes itself,” his face was grim. “And a mage wouldn’t have time to strike quickly enough… not after casting such a large spell to begin with… and not before the attacking Daear would be on top of them.”

“So what are you suggesting?”

“That we use a combination of attacks. A mage that can harness a high-power spell to bring down the shield…” Ben spread his hands slightly, “Working with a warrior who can step in to damage the Daear and protect the mage while they recharge for the next spell.”

Opal’s face was clouded with thought. Then she nodded slowly. “That seems really sound to me. We’re a little lacking on mages in our troops, but I think we should be able to find enough to pull something like that off.”

“But I thought you said–”

“I have also been talking with some of the Red Wing troops that came from the ship that King Cecil sent to Troia,” she simply continued. “There’s a good chance that the ship they landed outside city is still there and intact.”

“Really?”

If a ship really was there in Troia, that would be the answer to a lot of our problems.

His face must have reflected his sudden shift of hope because the Cleric nodded vehemently, “It’s very possible… but not absolute.”

We could pick up where we left off… maybe even catch up on lost ground. There are only two more Crystals they can attack, after all.

In a little-girl voice, Opal spoke again. Her words took him by surprise, “I know… that there is something going on in this world… that is bigger than my Sisters seem to recognize.”

Ben glanced up, an attentive and questioning look on his face.

“They weren’t there to see it… the destruction of the Earth Crystal,” she told him. “But I was. I saw part of it happen — the end part. I can’t begin to explain to you what it was like. Maybe I thought the world was coming to an end. Silly… I guess?”

She gave a nervous laugh.

Ben shook his head slowly. His attempt at being encouraging. “No, not silly…”

“I… just wanted to tell you… that I’ve decided to help,” Opal spoke slowly, heartened to continue. “I want to help… partly because it might be tough for you to persuade the others in the council to join you. And like I said, I know something big is going on… even if the elders don’t seem to realize that.”

“But…” the Half-Lunar blinked in surprise. “I don’t understand why you would…”

“I don’t completely understand it either,” she tilted her head a little before brushing off the front of her robe. “Call it intuition, if you will. It’s supposed to be part of being a Cleric… we just know certain things? At least… that’s what I was always led to believe about myself.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah,” Opal gave an uncomfortable grin. “I don’t always understand what I know. But it’s never let me down before… so I’m gonna trust it now.”

“And your intuition tells you…?”

“To help you. And King Cecil,” she nodded. Her hands folded in front of her as if to cover up how nervous she really was.

“Well… then…” Ben mused, “What do you plan on doing?”

“That’s what I was going to tell you. I want to march out before sunrise this morning,” Opal informed him with all the impetuousness of her gathered youth.

“Eh?” his eyes grew round. “But I thought you said that the others didn’t approve of this?”

“They don’t. That’s why we need to leave before dawn,” she frowned, shifting in her robes. For the first time, he noticed that she was carrying a heavy staff — the kind that was used in battle.

“You mean…”

“I’m gonna lead the Troian people to join you,” Opal nodded. “I’m a High Cleric. They’ll follow my orders. And they want to fight.”

Great… this is going to get blamed on me. I just know it.

Ben felt prickles rushing over his skin, “Is that… really what you want to do?”

“Yes,” she gave him a determined look. The kind that he had come to realize human girls could give when they offered no room for arguement. “If the people fight, they might die. But if they stay here, they will certainly die.”

“I suppose that’s true?” he swallowed.

I can see it now — ‘Dark Lord Golbez influences youngest Cleric of Troia into revolution…’

“Besides, as I said, there are bigger things at risk here,” her violet eyes flashed.

He could almost sense the dreams of youth in their depths. An idealistic girl, hardly more than a child, who had daydreamed great voyages into the unknown. Of leading the romantic charge of troops out to retrieve a fallen city.

What can I say? Nothing I do can stop her. And we really need her help.

“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” the Master Wizard repeated. And already knew the answer.

“Yes.” Opal told him firmly. “I think it’s really the only way.”

Ben fell silent for a moment. Finally he said, “How do you plan on getting Cecil to agree to this?”

She gave a disarming, little girl smile. “You just let me handle that.”

Ch6-3 The Secret Places

With a gentle touch, his fingers alighted on the Cleric’s shoulder, offering what sympathy that he could give.
“Here they come, boys!” Captain Silver’s voice rang clear through the night air. Even from so far away, it was easy to understand her words. “Ready yerselves!”

Cecil watched as the stream of pale blue lights flickered out from the gates of the Troian castle in the distance. It was an eerie, soundless procession. Like watching a ripple of ghostly fire flies make their way over the base of the surrounding hillsides. Something about it made his hair stand on end, even under all the padded armor.

The Daear…

Edge was juggling his weight from one foot to the other, the motion just at the corner of the Paladin’s eye. He was also watching the Daear’s charge, his face grim under down-pressed brows. “It feels like we’re cheating death or something, Cecil. We should be down there in that battle with the rest of them.”

I know… I feel the same way. But this is the plan. We can’t go back on it now.

And because it was the plan, Cecil couldn’t allow himself to admit aloud that what they were doing went against every soldierly instinct in his body. Where there was a battle, that’s where his sword should be. Where his men were putting their life on the line, he should be leading them.

But I’m not there. I’m here on this hillside… about to do something just as dangerous.

Despite the fact it probably all equaled out, it still didn’t make him feel any better.

“We’ve got to infiltrate the castle, Edge,” Cecil turned his level tone toward the fidgeting Ninja. “Golbez’s sensors indicated that Incrytan was being held within. If we can get a hold of that Crystal… then not just the battle, but the entire war can be won. Besides, if this is the Daear headquarters, it’s very likely that we’ll find–”

“Rydia,” Edge intercepted quickly. There was a strained look to his face. “Yes… I know. We might find Rydia…”

Cecil nodded slowly. Encouraging. “We’ll find her, Edge. No matter what. And this might just put us closer to doing it. Right?”

“Yeah,” the Ninja frowned. “I just hate waiting. Especially with…”

Edge’s words trailed off as the sound of battle rose in the distance. Metal on metal. War cries. The snarls of the Daear beasts. The anguish of death.

A nearby shout caused Opal to leap to her feet. The young Cleric stared with horror into the darkening forest until the Paladin caught her by the shoulder and shook his head in warning.

She took in a sharp breath, frightened eyes flickering up to Cecil’s face. Searching for comfort.

She’s still just a child… these are probably the first battles she’s ever seen. Yet, she was able to muster the people of Troia and lead them here with the will of her charisma alone.

He offered her a quiet smile.

The girl reminds me of me when I was younger…

“Don’t worry,” the Paladin told her. “There are many able warriors leading the battle on our side. Captain Silver… my Red Wings… the Ranger Deric… and some of your own Captains as well. They will do their part. We must do ours.”

Opal blinked, “Yes… Yes, I know. Just… so many could get hurt. Some of them are just townspeople.”

“That’s why we must not linger here,” he nodded. “We may be able to cut the battle short if all goes well.”

She was searching his face again, her throat working to swallow the tension that seemed to be choking her. When she spoke next, her words were more solid, “Okay… I’m ready.”

Cecil turned to peer across the glade to where his brother stood, keeping watch over the thicket of trees. “What does it look like, Golbez? Is it time for us to move out?”

“Nearly,” his brother’s deep voice rumbled in answer. Sharp green eyes scanned the lands below as if seeing more than just the battle. “Almost all the Daear troops left for the engagement. I don’t sense many in the city. We may have a clearer shot to the castle than we thought.”

“Left the city unguarded? Why would they do something stupid like that?” Edge muttered.

“Overconfident, maybe?” Opal suggested. “They did defeat us terribly the first time.”

“Possibly…” Cecil’s voice spoke his skepticism.

The Ninja caught the tone of voice and built on it, “A trap?”

“I don’t know. It makes me uneasy,” the Paladin admitted.

“Cecil,” Golbez interrupted quietly, “The battle is progressing deeper into the forest. We should make our move.”

“All right,” the Paladin pursed his lips. “What do you need us to do, Golbez?”

The Master Wizard stepped down from his post above the thicket, walking towards the group. “Everyone gather in real close. I need to make sure this spell includes everyone… and that I get it right the first time. Flashing this kind of magic around too much might call unwanted attention.”

Cecil waved the others to come in close. Chase and Porom darted to stand next to Edge as Opal positioned herself just behind the Paladin.

“Are you sure you trust Golbez to do this?” the Ninja muttered over his shoulder with a scowl.

“Edge…” Cecil’s tone was flat with warning. “Not now.”

“Just asking,” the Eblanian gave a sharp huff, eyeing the Wizard with dubious aloofness.

The plan was a simple one. Straightforward – as plans should be.

The Troian “army” would meet in battle with the Daear forces, hopefully drawing a large number of them back into the forests. Meanwhile, their group would be using the battle as a distraction to breech the walls of the city. Under the cloaking spell that Golbez claimed he could cast, Opal would lead them through the back access of the castle. Once inside, their goals were to find and claim Incrytan, release Rydia and apprehend the leader of the Daear operation.

Easy enough… right?

Cecil took in a deep breath, focusing on his brother’s face. Golbez was concentrating, beginning to spin the first threads of the magic. Something about the thought of being on the receiving end of one of the Master Wizard’s spell still tied Cecil’s stomach in knots. The Paladin fought to keep his expression composed as the pale light gathered around them.

As the spell was released, the world was bathed in a rippling curtain of green liquidity. For a moment, Cecil’s breath choked in, as if his mind reeled at the thought of breathing the strange atmosphere. A strange lightness tingled over his limbs as motion became slow and exaggerated. Even a blink of an eye seemed both effortless and extremely difficult all at the same time.

What sort of magic is this..? I thought he was casting some kind of cloaking spell!?

Cecil opened his mouth, attempting to choke out his brother’s name. But sound did not come – as if it could not exist in the thickness of the air.

Golbez’s voice came to him, contradicting the assumption. “Relax, now…”

Or perhaps it was not sound at all. Rather words spoken within his mind. Cecil couldn’t tell.

“This is what is known as a dimensional pocketing,” the Master Wizard informed them. “It works much like the shielding that the Daear use in battle. Except ours will keep us from being seen – unless they have a very good illusionist down there that I don’t know about. The spell also has a limited rage. So everyone stay close to me as we move.”

Dimensional pocketing? Is that some sort of Black Mage spell? I’ve never seen something like this before…

Golbez’s eyes fell upon him with a knowing look. “At your command, Cecil.”

Still unable to figure out how to work his voice, the Paladin settled for a slow nod and meticulous point forward. In response, the group moved ahead, sheltered under the strange waver of green-domed magic. Their descent down the hill seemed to take so much longer than walking normally would. Like moving through jelly.

Shiva… at this rate, the battle is going to be over with before we can even get to the gates.

Then, taking a nervous glance out into the clearing, Cecil realized… that everything in the world around them was moving twice as slow as they seemed to be. Taking a choked breath in, his mind reeled again, fighting to find some sense of logic in the impossible.

Okay, Cecil, that’s it. Don’t even think about it. Just let Golbez do his thing. You’ll only get a headache trying to figure out all this crazy hand-waving stuff.

Pulling his attention back to the task at hand, the Paladin fixed his gaze on the hazy image of Troia. His skin ran with pin-prickles as his senses screamed at the insanity – they were marching straight through the battlefield, right out in the open, toward the gates of a city occupied by the enemy.

Can they really not see us?

Tension grew heavy as the group crept closer. The gates were within a few yards now. And still, no sound of enemy alarm. No rush of guards. They went undetected.

I don’t believe it…

Cecil’s sense of wonder swelled around him. He peered back over his shoulder at the tall form of his brother who strode only a few paces behind. The Master Wizard’s hands were still upraised in concentration on the spell.

As the group passed between the crumbled stones of the gate, the Paladin’s amazement was replaced by the sweeping clouds of dismay. The city of Troia lay at his feet in ruins – just as his dreams predicted.

Shiva… the Crystal of Earth did all this?

Pale stone was scattered and crumbled over the dark, upturned soil. A mountain of dried mud hunched over a full block of the city’s residential area. The ground had split itself, long oozing gashes sliced over what had once been green, friendly cityscape. The waterways had been displaced, streaming off into the streets in unplanned pools of grey.

At first, Cecil could only stand there stunned, and take it all in. The nation of Troia had been one of great beauty, boasting some of the most wondrous old-style stone architecture and vast hanging gardens. Even during the Crystal Wars, the city had remained a beacon of purity, untouched by the destruction that many of the other nations had fallen to.

This is the one place… I never thought I’d see like this.

Opal’s face reflected in absolute shock. It was the pain of one returning home only to find home no longer existed — at least, not in the way it did in memory.

The Paladin’s hand lifted through the silent liquidity. Then with a gentle touch, his fingers alighted on the Cleric’s shoulder, offering what sympathy that he could give.

Golbez’s eyes were upon the girl, vastly green within their hooded depths. By the expression on his face, he seemed to almost share a sense of the girl’s pain. As if he had experienced the same thing once before in his own life.

“We must keep moving,” the Master Wizard’s tone was soft and reluctant. It was obvious he didn’t want to push Opal. But the success of their mission relied upon the girl’s ability to navigate the secret places within the Troian fortress. “Don’t forget why we are here.”

The Cleric gave a weak nod. One hand rose silently as she pointed into the wreckage of the city, motioning to the road on their far left. Without hesitation, the group followed the indication, weaving through the broken pillars and jagged stone.

The castle itself gave the appearance of a structure off balance and bearing far too much weight. As if it might cave in upon itself any moment. The closer they came, the more it seemed to lean. Cecil gave an involuntary shudder as they crept into the shadows of the stone. The moat that had once pooled the feet of the fortress had migrated away into the city streets.

I hope that the secret passages have survived this destruction.

Opal pressed her back against the wall of the nearest tower and scaled along the edge of the overhang. Carefully, the Paladin copied her actions, eyes fixed on his feet and the long drop into the empty moat below. The others followed, looking less enthusiastic – especially Golbez. But the nature of the cloaking spell forced them to stay near to each other.

On the far side of the tower, the overhang broadened out, giving them room to stand, if only shoulder to shoulder. The Cleric raised her hands, palms flat against the old stone of the castle wall, searching. Finally, a soft click was heard. A part of the wall shivered, pushing inward like a door.

So this will lead us directly into the heart of the fortress… as long as it is still intact?

It was a passage only known to the Clerics and some of the higher members of the noble council. Opal explained that it was an emergency escape route that was built from the main chambers to the outside – just in case the castle ever fell under siege and the Clerics needed to be moved to safety.

The passage was narrow and low-built — only Porom and Chase could stand inside without needing to stoop. The smell of must and undisturbed spider webs filled Cecil’s senses as the shimmer of Golbez’s spell faded away.

The Paladin peered back at his brother with a glance of alarm.

“We won’t need it in here,” Golbez explained. “Besides, it’s tough to maintain an area spell in a place like this… since we’ve got to crawl through it and all.”

Crawl?

Cecil eyed the big Half-Lunar with a moment of internal-amusement.

I suppose for someone his stature, it is like crawling…

Edge was taking in deep, gasping breaths. As if he had forgotten what it was like to breathe unenchanted air. “Let’s get on with this — before the troops come back, remember?”

“Just follow me,” Opal waved to them. Pulling her hair back with one hand and sending a small shimmer of magic light in front of her with the other, the girl began to press into the darkness of the passageway.

The advance through the tunnel was a long, ponderously blind one. Only the scuffing of feet ahead of him and the touch of a groping hand from behind told Cecil where his companions were. Every now and then as they turned a corner, he caught a glimpse of the soft white light in the Cleric’s hands. The rest of the time there was nothing but darkness, stale air and the pressure of the stone castle leaning above them.

A final low-crawl led them out of the passage and into a dim-lit back corner of a small corridor. Cecil was never so relieved to see the inside of Troian castle.

Anything to get out of that underground suffocation chamber… I swear.

The Paladin emerged from the small hole, turning on his heel to offer his help to those that still had yet to emerge from the tunnel. “Here, you’re almost out. Just a little bit more.”

A soil-stained hand reached out to grasp his own. A moment later, Edge’s face appeared, smudge with a look of panicked horror, cobwebs strung up throughout his hair. As the ninja dragged himself from the hole he gave a sharp gasp for air, “Let’s never.. do that.. again… ‘right?”

“I’m with you on this one,” Cecil murmured, hoisting the Ninja up from the gaping hollow.

The rest followed, one by one. Golbez brought up the rear, only to find his broad shoulders stuck at the exit. It took the combined efforts of Cecil, Chase and a disgruntled Edge ten minutes to finally dislodge the big Half-Lunar.

“No one told me I’d have to be haulin’ Golbez’s big arse around on this mission,” the Ninja grumbled, unsuccessfully trying to brush the grime out of his grey hair.

Golbez simply flopped out on the floor, shivering a little as he attempted to catch his breath. It was obvious by the scuffs and scrapes along his shoulders and back that the trip through the narrow passageway had been the least comfortable for him.

“Sometimes it’s a real pain to be tall,” Golbez murmured, eyes fixing on Cecil as if sensing the Paladin’s line of thought.

“Well, it’s over with now,” the Paladin tried to offer a shred of optimism.

“I’m really sorry,” Opal’s tone was abashed. “I didn’t think it would be such trouble…”

“No, no. It’s nothing to be sorry for. Just let me catch my breath,” Golbez waved a hand sheepishly, his awkward expression catching Cecil off guard.

Well, that’s strange – Golbez… is shy?

Not one to hold still for longer than a minute, Edge was already making his rounds. Slipping into the shadows along the wall, he vanished around the corner, cloaked in absolute silence.

Opal’s head turned just in time to see the glimmer of grey disappear, “Wait… where is he–”

“It’s okay,” Cecil told her, adjusting the neck of his cloak. “It might not seem like it, but he’s a self-acclaimed master at stealth. He can scout this place faster and with less trouble than the whole group of us could.”

A doubtful expression flickered across the Cleric’s face.

“Look at it this way,” Golbez’s voice was droll. “If he doesn’t come back, that’s one less thing we have to worry about?”

“Golbez!” Cecil turned, a hint of surprised amusement spoiling his reprimand.

The Master Wizard gave a deep-throated chuckle and an easy, lopsided smile. Both rarities up until now.

Maybe it’s all the stress of the journey… but he really is starting to act strange.

When Edge finally reappeared, he gave them a solemn nod, “Looks like everything’s clear. Those Daear really did strip the castle of troops. And it’s just not making any sense to me.”

“Agreed,” Cecil frowned slowly. “All the more reason to be on the lookout for anything strange.”

The Ninja turned his attention to the Cleric, “Take us to the prisons.”

Opal blinked at him, taken aback by the sudden order. Then she peered at Cecil, questioningly. As if not sure who she should be taking commands from.

“What’s the hold-up?” the Eblanian demanded, glaring at the Cleric and the Paladin, “They’ve got Rydia captive and I damn well know we’re going to go and find her first. Before they realize we’re here and things get sticky. Right?”

Cecil drew in a thoughtful breath.

“Right!?” Edge’s voice held a hint of warning.

He’s going to go after Rydia no matter what I say…

“Of course…” Cecil nodded finally. He turned a gentle look towards Opal. “Please take us to the prisons?”

The girl pushed her shoulders back, straightening under the Paladin King’s request. No further prompting needed, she headed down the corridor, leading them into the depths of the crumbling castle.

Ch6-4 The Power of Anger

The boy’s golden eyes lifted, meeting Edge’s startled gaze… Then he spoke, “No.”
“Cecil!” Golbez hissed through the damp dungeon air, “It vanished!”

“What? What vanished?” the Paladin’s head swerved tensely. His eyes latched on to the dim image of his brother’s face where it hovered, lit from below by the strange device. “What are you talking about?”

It took the Master Wizard a moment before he seemed to realize that Cecil was addressing him. Then, with a morose face, he replied, “Incrytan… it’s not here in the castle anymore!”

Edge’s glance took in the brothers, mostly because they had stopped walking and were now blocking the entire narrow corridor in front of him. Pressing his shoulder to one wall, the Ninja found no way to squeak his way past the two Half-Lunars, who stood fixated on the small crystal device in the Wizard’s hand.

Damn Golbez’s big arse!

“How do you know?” Cecil was asking.

“It’s not showing on the tracker anymore,” Golbez grimaced.

“Hey, let’s move it!” Edge growled, trying to peer over the tall Wizard’s shoulder without success. A veil of green cloak filled his sight. And his words went unheard.

Come on! Come on!! Who cares about some stupid rock – we’re so close to finding Rydia!

“How could that be?” the Paladin’s face oozed concern. “Something like Incrytan just doesn’t vanish in a moment, does it?”

Golbez pursed his lips. “I have my theories…”

“That’s nice… now move the hell out the way!” Edge gave the Wizard’s shoulder a sharp nudge.

From behind the Ninja, Chase blinked at Porom with a concerned glance.

Golbez turned in response to the prod. His green eyes glittered down at Edge, almost spectral in the glow of the crystal device as the stern lines of his face were accented sharply in discontent. For that passing moment, it felt as if the presence of the Dark Lord had suddenly reawakened.

He’s really pissed about this Crystal thing… isn’t he?

The Ninja forced his feet to remain rooted to the slippery, mossed stone, though his initial reaction was to flinch. Grey eyes sharpened as tension trickled through the corridor.

Maybe I should have kept my trap shut.

Cecil must have sensed it, too. His hand was already clamped to the Wizard’s upper arm as if to command away any dark urges his brother might have. His voice was nervous, but soothing, “Golbez…”

The Ninja felt his own hand straying near the hilt of his blade.

We’re so close, Rydia. I’m not letting this dark-hearted bastard get in my way…

“Edge…” Cecil’s voice turned on him, as if sensing the Ninja’s train of thought. “Not now. Both of you.”

The Wizard gave a long, shuddering breath. When he dropped his eyes from the conflict, there was a hint of what seemed embarrassment.

“I don’t think you comprehend the situation here,” Golbez’s deep voice was thick. Concerned. “Incrytan is our goal here. Anything else is moot beside it.”

Edge felt his heel ground into the stone. His eyes flashed, “It’s just like Golbez to say something like that!”

“Hun?” the Half-Lunar stared, a sudden baffled expression flooding his face.

He really doesn’t get it, does he?

“You’re the one that doesn’t understand,” Edge shoved a finger forward and waved it sharply. “Someone’s life is at stake here! One of our own is taken prisoner… and that means nothing to you? You’re so obsessed with finding your stupid magic trinket that everything else besides that is moot – even human life?”

“W-wait. I didn’t say–” Golbez looked taken aback.

“Yes you did. Your own words,” the young king snorted, pushing past the drapes of green and white cloaks in disgust.

Opal’s violet eyes were wide as the Ninja strode past her, towards the dripping darkness. “Wait, where are you going?”

“To find Rydia,” he muttered. “Since no one else seems to care.”

“Edge!” Cecil’s tone was pleading. “We gotta stick together!”

“Yeah, well, Paladin,” he turned on his heel, “I thought it was your job to protect people who are in trouble? Not to mention your friends? What happened to all that mess? Or has your brother influenced the way you think so much that you–”

Golbez’s voice suddenly surged into the fray, “How dare you suggest that I would–”

“Hey! Hey!” Caught in the middle, it was all Cecil could do to dodge the heated glares. “I said, not now!”

“You can fool everyone else Golbez, but you don’t fool me!” Edge had turned around and was storming back. His fingers brushed the notch of the hilts on one blade.

Because of you… I lost everything!

Heated anger flushed his face. Anger. Disgust. Hate… for the one that pulled the strings that ultimately led to the death of his parents… the destruction of his home.

I’m not going to lose Rydia, too.

It was a pleasing feeling to see the Wizard reach back for his own weapon in response to his advance.

The world seemed to blur as his slick palms closed in around the damp cloth wrapping of his sword hilts. Like old friends, the katanas responded. His body made forward motion, vision stained in red with fury.

Finally… it’s just you and me, bastard!

Everything narrowed, tunnel vision as his focus fell upon the once Dark-Lord who stood before him. A flooding moment of glory as the blades began to hiss, just beginning to break free from their sheathes… the blood-high he always felt when—

Kid!?

Standing now between the Ninja’s advance and the Master Wizard was the little Baronian Page boy. Chase.

How’d he get there? I didn’t even see…!

The boy’s golden eyes lifted, meeting Edge’s startled gaze. And dropped what felt an immeasurable weight upon the Ninja’s soul. Then he spoke, “No.”

A single word. Not a command. Not an argument. Just a simple word with the power of the universe behind it.

“Chase..!” Golbez’s voice wavered, green eyes wide with apprehension. In fear that the boy would be harmed.

Golden eyes remained locked upon the Ninja’s face. Edge felt shivers rising over his skin as his hands pulled away from the hilts of his swords.

“King Edge,” Chase’s voice was distant. Slightly hollow, but direct. “The ones who were really responsible for your pain have already met their end. Now let your departed loved ones rest peacefully in your mind, for they have long-been avenged.”

The Ninja released a shallow, startled breath as he took a step back. “How did you know that I…?!”

“It’s written all around you,” the boy answered simply.

Edge’s eyes flickered up to the Master Wizard where he stood, one hand on Chase’s shoulder. A momentary resurgence urged the Ninja to accuse the once Dark Lord of using the young boy as a guise of treacherous illusion. But something inside of him knew that it was Chase, and Chase alone, who spoke.

I should have known… only creepy kids would want to hang around Golbez.

“Edge… what’s going on?” Cecil frowned, as if he had no knowledge of what was just about to take place.

Cecil didn’t see?

The corridor back the way that Edge had just come was lost to shadow — so it was possible that the Paladin had not clearly seen him as he had reached for his blades. Besides, it had only been a momentary thing.

“I… well… nothing. It was nothing.” Anger had fast drained from the Ninja’s limbs as the Page’s golden eyes studied him. And once Chase’s words had found their way into his consciousness, Edge couldn’t shake the feeling that the boy spoke the truth. In some odd, off-hand way.

Maybe the kid is right..?

Golbez, however, seemed quite aware of how close it had come. There was a silence about him as he turned his gaze away from the Ninja. Something that seemed almost sad. Withdrawn.

What the hell did I think I was doing? Attacking Cecil’s brother…

Edge grimaced.

And here I am, getting distracted like this on the way to save Rydia!

“Edge is right,” the Master Wizard spoke, his rich voice stirring the rest of them back to their senses. The words came slow and deliberate. Thoughtful. “Incrytan… may be beyond our reach now. We should be concerned for… the welfare of…”

Edge peered over at Golbez as he stumbled on his thoughts. The Half Lunar obviously didn’t know how to put words to the concept he was trying to voice.

“A dear friend?” Cecil supplied, face also lost in thought. As if pulled back to where his own priority should lay.

“…A dear friend…” Golbez echoed, as if the words were foreign to him.

Opal let out a short, impetuous sigh. She, too, for all her talk of intuition seemed not to realize what had almost happened. “So are we all agreed now?”

“Yes,” the Wizard murmured, green eyes flickering on Edge for a moment. “I believe so.”

“Good… then, follow me? We’re getting real close to the jails,” the young Cleric chirped, turning on her heel and leading the way further into the narrow tunnel.

The group remained silent as Opal directed them down the slick incline of stone. The distant sound of dripping water echoed from the dark, looming walls and the low-rising ceiling. In many places, a stream of trickling pebbles pattered from above, warning of weaknesses in the castle structure.

None of these things registered upon the Ninja. Though it was unlike Edge to let himself get lost to thought so much that it would sacrifice his usual leet perceptions, he couldn’t help but ponder.

Why did Golbez agree with me? Is it some sort of trick? Or maybe…

Edge’s glance stole over towards the large Half-Lunar. The flicker of memory — Golbez’s expression of fear and concern for Chase as the boy stood between the two of them back in the corridor.

Just maybe… human life isn’t as moot to him as he likes to claim.

“Here!” Opal hissed suddenly, motioning forward towards the darkness. “I think someone is here!”

The dim light prevented them from clearly making out what was ahead. Edge could sense more than see that they were no longer facing a corridor, but rather a large room made up of smaller compartments. Many of these smaller rooms were barred off, the black metal lines of the jail cells seeming somehow darker than the dungeon shadows.

In the cell furthest away, a pale trickle of light streamed through a warped, barred-up window. A shimmer of soft green reflected from within. That’s all Edge needed to see.

“Rydia!” he shouted, breaking into a dash.

If they’ve hurt her… I swear I’m going to hunt those Daear down one by one!

“Rydia, I’m here!” Edge slid up to the front of the cell to grip the bars. “I’m gonna bust you out of this joint… just hold tight.”

I’ll get to save her with my uber-cool lock picking skillz! This might not be such a bad thing afterall… Maybe I’ll even steal a kis–

As his hand touched the bars of the door, it swung open easily.

“What?!”

The flow of soft green hair turned and the woman in the center of the cell slowly stood in response to his voice. As the steely gaze met his own, Edge felt a lump grow in his throat. The eyes were unfamiliar.

“You’re not Rydia!” was all the Ninja could manage to say before the point of her spear leveled at his chest.

Ch6-5 Forward Momentum

“Do not assume that you have seen the full power of my kind – you have not yet,” Pren drew a smile made of venom.
“You move, you die.” Pren stated, the tip of her spear marking a spot on the human’s chest. How she ached to spill the vile creature’s blood – it would be one less leech upon the life force of the Blue Planet. One less stain upon the flow of time.

But that’s not what I’m here for.

The human, however, seemed hearing impaired. Though his arms were held wide apart, fingers spread with palms downward, his eyes flicked back over his shoulder, voice strained as he called to his companions, “Cecil! It’s a trap!”

The Paladin King is here? Very good… very, very good…

“You do want to die, don’t you?” she hissed, pressuring the point closer. “You mean nothing to me, human scum. Don’t push your waning luck.”

“What do you want?” the human grated through clenched teeth.

“I have a warning for the Paladin King of Baron. I would advise you to retract your statement and tell him to come here promptly,” Pren growled.

It seemed as if the human was considering his options. And taking his time doing it.

Stupid humans… do they really value their lives so lowly? Or their abilities that highly?

“Do I have to make an example of you, then?” she sneered, placing more pressure on the haft of the spear.

The human winced, obviously feeling it. Maybe the draw of blood. There would be more blood that would follow, whether or not the human spoke.

The Earth shall be cleansed in the blood of humankind… until they have all been washed away. Until they are no more — and the planet is free of their curse.

“No,” a clear voice came from the shadows. An armored man strode forward, the dim light from the window catching in his green eyes and reflecting from the white of his hair. It could only be the Paladin King. “I will hear your message… release him.”

“You are in no position to give orders, Paladin,” Pren’s spear remained level. “Your companion may be released, but only once my business with you is done.”

Perhaps. If I’m feeling generous.

“Dammit…” the human at the end of her spear point swore. Which made it all the more tempting to hurt him.

Instead, Pren schooled her composure, steely gaze studying the group that had arrived out of the shadows. The Paladin King… and someone that could only be the ‘Golbez’ that the Lunar girl, Joran, always blathered about. Two filthy, nauseating human children. And one girl who seemed to be posing as a Cleric from Troia, though she looked hardly old enough to be let out of her mother’s sight.

This is all they send into the Keep to fight us?

Word had spread quickly among the Daear troops that the humans had found a way to break their dimensional pocketing techniques. No doubt the refugees from Troia would be returning to claim what was left of their city – now merely rubble and ashes.

If they want it so badly, let them have it. It is time for us to move into the second phase…

At this point, defending Troia was of no interest to Pren. Once Incrytan and the human prisoner had been removed, all that was left was to set the next step of the plan into motion.

“So you are the Paladin King so lauded by the humans?” she spat.

“Yes. I am,” he replied, keeping his distance warily. It was obvious that he wasn’t too pleased at seeing his companion standing at spear point. But, wisely enough, the Paladin also did not seem to want to make a move that might get his companion skewered.

“Disappointing,” Pren gave a taunting smirk. “I expected a lot more of you – for all the talk of heroism.”

“Cecil…” her captive grated through clenched teeth, “Don’t let her yank you around like this. Don’t worry about me…”

“Forget it, Edge,” the Paladin shot back. “Don’t do anything stupid, you hear me?”

That’s right… don’t do anything stupid, little man.

“You said that you had a warning for me?” the Paladin’s green eyes focused on her face. Being the subject of his gaze made her feel like vomiting.

“I am Pren, leader of the Daear forces of Newidmynydd,” she informed them sternly.

The human called Edge made a slight jerk forward, face dark with anger at the mention of her status. It took him only a moment to remember the spear at his chest. Still, she couldn’t help but wonder if he still might not end up getting himself killed out of his own brash stupidity.

“And you believe that you should bring me a warning?” the Paladin King pursed his lips. “When it is you and your forces that will shortly be on the run. The armies of Troia will soon reclaim their city. Your magical defenses have been found out and no longer pose a threat to our people.”

Just as I expected. Crowing his victory before he understands anything about the situation at all. It’s a wonder he lived through the Crystal Wars.

“Don’t you realize that holding Troia is not our objective? Do you really think this is the full power of the Daear army?” Pren dropped the news in his lap like a ten ton weight, “While you were tracking through the forests, Paladin King, my forces have already passed over the boundaries of your kingdom. The Daear will be moving in for direct attack of the city of Baron within the next few days.”

The Paladin’s already pale face turned white in mute shock.

So easy to read…

“You can’t expect us to seriously believe that!” Edge demanded, growling at her from the opposite side of the spear haft.

“Believe whatever pleases you. If you choose not to assist your people, it is no loss to me,” Pren retorted.

“Then what the hell are you doing telling us about it?” the human snapped. He really did want a gaping hole bored into his chest.

“Why, to spread the news of the assured triumph of the Daear race over the weak humans,” she let a pure stream of haughtiness flow from the words. If the humans were angry enough, perhaps they would forget to question her motives and simply take action.

“And what about Rydia!” her captive snarled. “You have her, don’t you!?”

“You mean that vile Caller girl?”

“You DO have her!” he looked about ready to break her spear between both hands.

Pren prodded him to remind him of his pace. “That is correct. Though, obviously, she is not being kept here.”

“I swear if you’ve hurt her I’ll–”

“The Caller has not been harmed,” she informed him smoothly. “Yet. However, if you do not shut your mouth, I might consider altering that fact shortly.”

Teeth bared, Edge fell into a cloud of fuming silence.

Excellent. Now maybe I can have a chance to actually speak with the Paladin rather than this raging fool.

During this whole time, the Half Lunar had remained silent.

Pren turned her cold gaze on him. “It is your call, Paladin King.”

Still, he remained silent.

“Do you understand your position, now?”

Finally finding his voice, he replied, “What do you want from me… in exchange?”

“In exchange for sparing your home city?” she gave him an amused look.

“Yes…”

A low, hollow laugh rose in her throat. “I see you don’t understand, after all. I am not here to bargain with you, Paladin. I am here to inform you that my troops will shortly be marching upon your city and slaughtering every filthy human, down to the very last child.”

Edge gave a sharp grunt, as if wanting to break into another tirade. But the threat over Rydia seemed to hold his impudence in silence.

“Do not assume that you have seen the full power of my kind – you have not yet,” Pren drew a smile made of venom. “Each pair of elemental Crystals that we destroy brings us strength as the sway of the Blue Planet returns to what it should have been… before the loathsome Lunarians came to meddle. For the Daear… Troia was only just the beginning.”

She could see the thoughts swimming around behind the Paladin’s eyes. His expression was one of stunned dismay. Of things not going exactly as planned.

Unexpected complications? Or did you simply underestimate us?

“Cecil…” the one that she had guessed to be Golbez spoke for the first time. One hand touched the Paladin’s shoulder. Though his words were hushed, they carried through the thickness of the damp dungeon air. “Cecil… there’s something else down here… something that feels really wrong.”

“What?” the Paladin jerked his head up in response. As if snapping out of a bad dream.

Cursed Half Lunarian wizard perceptions…

“Ah, yes,” Pren’s smile grew sickly. There was nothing left to do but play up the turn of events, despite the fact that she had wanted that part of the plan remain undetected until it was too late. “That would be my little gift to you, Master Golbez.”

“Gift? For me?” he peered across at her, face puzzled. As if he really expected a true-to-life gift.

He’s even more foolish than his brother…

Before they could say anything more, her hand lifted, fingers spread wide as she sent a pulse of command through the fabric of space. In response, a swirl of light began to fold back, a dimensional door opening before her.

“A Wayrift!” Golbez seemed the only one to understand the implications of such a thing. “She’s trying to escape!”

Just as Pren expected, the moment that she drew the spear away from her captive’s chest he made a lunge for her. Finishing off the annoying human would have been far more preferable, but time didn’t allow. And truthfully, she wanted to be as far away from the ruined castle as she could be… before it was released.

“Get back here and fight!” Edge shouted, leaping at her back.

But it was too late. The Daear General vanished into the swirl of fading light just as the stone floors of the Troian castle began to shake.

Ch6-6 Illusionary Death

“Hello, Benjamin,” a sleek, clear voice rose up to greet him, “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
Every internal sense in Ben’s body screamed out a warning.

The shadows along the trembling dungeon walls began to swell, rising up into a solid form. And though he could recognize the magic for what it was – a mind illusion – there was something about the feel of the energy that was terribly wrong. The fact that anyone on the Blue Planet knew of such magic was more frightening to Ben than what the magic was currently summoning.

Forbidden! This sort of mind magic has not been taught to the Lunars… much less the humans! What sort of creature could possibly know something like this?

“Cecil! What the hell is that?” Edge stumbled as the ground gave another heave. Propping one shoulder against the bars of the cell, he managed to keep his balance long enough to draw his blades.

“I… don’t know?” The Paladin’s gaze turned slowly, taking in the looming formation with a glassy expression.

“We can’t stay here,” Ben grasped his brother’s shoulder with one hand, as he attempted to steer Chase, Porom and Opal into the hopeful safety of one of the sturdier-standing jail cells.

“Ben… it’s..!” Chase voice rang in alarm.

“I know… I feel it too,” the Wizard grimaced. Then he placed a hand on the two children’s heads. “I want you to stay hidden here. Just for now, until I figure out what we’re fighting.”

“But, Master… I can–!” Porom objected.

“I’m sure you can,” he nodded, stopping her in mid-sentence. “But what all the Troians fighting outside the castle are really going to need is someone who can heal once the battle is done. You need to stay safe until then.”

Porom took in a deep breath. The frown on her face spoke of unhappiness, but her brown eyes lowered in resignation, “Yes, Master…”

“What about me?” Opal stared up at the Half Lunar. There was a sense that she had already seen more than her share. But there was also the spark of determination that said she would hold fast until the end.

“I don’t understand?” Ben peered at her.

“Do you order me to remain here too?”

“Cleric of Troia… this is your kingdom. Your war. I can’t order you to do anything,” he told her, tottering as a random tremble shook the castle. “It’s totally up to you.”

Her knuckles were white where they griped her battle staff. Her violet eyes reflected in fear with each jolt of the stone. But when Ben went to retrieve Cecil, the young Cleric followed closely behind.

“Cecil, are you going to be okay?” the Wizard gave his brother a long, concerned look. He could tell by the expression on the Paladin’s face that Cecil was already thinking about his kingdom.

“Don’t sweat it man — we’ll take them out before they can hit Baron,” Edge appeared at Cecil’s other side, a flicker of anger still in his eyes.

“We’ve got to make it through this first,” Ben warned them both.

Slowly the Paladin lifted his eyes, hand reaching around the grip of his blade. “Yes… you’re right.”

“Damn right, I’m right!” Edge barked, crossing his two katanas in front of him. “Now let’s go take this nasty-ass down! Whatever it is.”

The liquid shadow had begun to condense within the center of the dungeon, vaguely taking on the shape of a fully armored knight. One that stood twice and again Ben’s own height.

“He..eey!” Opal’s violet eyes widened. “That thing is making a mockery of the old Knight statue that used to stand in the Main Square!”

“Don’t tell me… he was a powerful legendary knight of Troia?” Edge hissed, locking his heel against the rolling of the floor.

“Yes. She was,” the Cleric grumbled.

“Well, let’s just hope an illusionary recreation of the statue lacks her legendary battle prowess,” Ben muttered.

“Illusion? This thing is just an illusion?” Cecil blinked over, both hands now gripping the haft of his blade.

“Yeah, but it’s more complicated than that,” the Wizard informed them. “Treat it like it’s real. I have a feeling it’s going to be just as dangerous as actuality.”

“How can that be?” the Paladin’s voice bordered on hoarse.

“I have a few ideas… and none of them are good,” Ben’s eyes glittered, fixing on the shadowy Knight as it turned its new-formed awareness upon them. “All I do know is that it must be destroyed.”

“Alright! Let’s do this!” Edge leapt forward, both blades held straight down by his sides.

“Wait… we don’t even know if that can hurt it!” Cecil called after him.

“Trial and error, Cecil,” Ben frowned deeply, moving forward towards the battle area, though more carefully than the Ninja had.

“I hate trial and error,” the Paladin grumbled. But he, too, was moving forward.

“Just make sure you keep Edge out the way of my spells,” Ben replied, staking the blade of Onyx into a crack between the stones. Both hands lifted as concentration summoned crackling green power around him.

Or there will be Ninja Crispies.

Just as the Master Wizard made to release the pulsing flow of power, a streak of white flew past his head, slinging his hair over his vision. There was no doubt it had been holy magic – it was the in way his skin prickled and heated, leaving an uncomfortable flush on one side of his face. Ben stumbled back, his own spell forgotten, to stare at Opal where she stood just off to one side and behind him. Already, the young Cleric was winding up to send another holy comet.

“Opal!” Ben choked, “Don’t cast that so close to m—Ahhhh!”

A rush of white magic flew from the young girl’s hands, once again far too close for comfort. Ben dodged back on instinct, stumbling amongst the toppled stones from one of the walls. Only to find his foot stuck in one of the twisted grates of a jail cell door.

“Odin’s Blade!” he swore, yanking at his entrapped leg. The bars grated a high-pitched screech, reluctantly giving up their new-found captive.

The whole structured shuddered as stone exploded, sending Opal dodging for cover behind the wall next to the Master Wizard. Her mouth was wide open, breath panting in panic – the very same panic that had probably led her to casting about magic so wildly to begin with.

“Are you okay!?” Ben called to Opal, half catching her as she stumbled.

“It’s a monster!!” she informed him in a terrified voice, as if realizing for the first time exactly what they were up against.

“Yeah… monsters happen sometimes…” he replied. All he could do was attempt to keep her steady under one gentle hand, until the girl could pull her wits about her.

Twisting his head in an awkward angle, Ben managed to catch sight of the battle raging in the small enclosure. The Knight’s weighted mace buried itself deep within one of the dungeon walls, sending a volcano of debris shooting across the chamber. The whole structure quivered as the roof caved above the wicked-horned helm.

Where is Cecil!?

Dwarfed by the creature’s immense stature, Edge and Cecil flitted around the Knight’s massive legs. The two of them worked flawlessly, moving in a pattern of battle-motion that only they seemed to know. There was little doubt that though the Ninja and the Paladin did not always share the same views on broader issues in life, they worked together exceedingly well when it came to matters of battle.

As the Knight dislodged the massive weapon, the Ninja sprang up and caught one of the dull metal spikes. A quick dance placed Edge up on the arm of the now-befuddled creature, leaving a long trail of sparks as his dual blades sought for a weakness between the armor’s plates.

I swear – they look like they’re having far too much fun…

Cecil was already making his way up a pile of rubble, setting the Knight up for an attack from behind. As big and lumbering as the Knight was, there seemed little it could do but swat heftily at the two swiftly darting warriors.

Still. Cecil’s Crystal Sword… Edge’s Masamune and Murasame… they don’t seem to be cutting through that armor. I doubt this illusion can be harmed.

A deep frown broke over Ben’s face as his eyes began to scan the chamber, attempting making out the dim shapes along the leaning stone structures.

The Knight-illusion must be a distraction. It’s too magically inefficient to be a serious attack.

Gripping the haft of Onyx tighter, the Half Lunar began to send tendrils of awareness throughout the room. Searching.

Someone knew they could keep Cecil and Edge busy with something like this. Someone is playing our group.

Searching…. and not finding.

But where is he—

Ben heard Opal’s choked gasp only a second before he felt the sharp stabbing jolt in his back. A moment of tense numbness rushed over his body, deflecting the pain that a normal person would feel from such a blow.

I didn’t even sense—

The Wizard felt a sudden backwards jerk — something sharp being drawn out of his body from behind. He saw a splatter of red spray across the floor around his boots. A warm, wet spot began to spread from his shoulder. It was a thick, liquid feeling that dribbled down his back and made his undershirt stick to his skin.

“Wha…?” Slowly, Ben turned around. The first thing he noticed was the pale shock that covered Opal’s face. The young Cleric she stood shaking and plastered with her back to the wall.

Ben only realized that he had been stabbed when his eyes fell upon the blood-stained blade on the end of the staff. His gaze traveled up the haft to see the stranger’s demented smile. The face was hidden by metal plates and a large black eye patch, which accented the mad flicker of a single burning green eye.

Do I know you from somewhere…?

Something tugging at the back of his mind. But he couldn’t tell what. Or why.

This man… he is…

“Hello, Benjamin,” a sleek, clear voice rose up to greet him, as if in answer to his thoughts. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”

“Ah..?” Ben’s mouth was open, breathing heavily as the warm wetness began to spread further down his back.

“Or should I call you Master Golbez, now?” the stranger’s smile widened. “Would you find that more… appropriate?”

“No…” the Half Lunar’s voice was weak. His mind rolled back and forth under the gripping feeling that he should know this person. And a distant curiosity about the dull pain spreading over his back.

“It’s a shame, isn’t it? We should meet here again, at the end of all things. In this way…” the tips of the bladed spear shimmered in a dull violet light. As the stranger slowly let his mental shielding slip away, Ben found his senses picking things up. Frightening things.

This guy… he’s some sort of mind mage? It’s hard to tell, but I don’t think he’s human. There’s no way a human can do things like this. Yet… he doesn’t feel Lunar either?

“You… you were the one that created the mind illusion?” Ben struggled, trying to piece things together.

The smile slipped off the mind mage’s face, replaced by a searching squint. “What do you mean? You don’t know who I am?”

“No…?”

“That’s impossible,” his expression darkened into a scowl which made him even more fearsome. “After all that time in Zot?”

“Zot?” Ben blinked, then shook his head. “I don’t remember much of what happened to me in Zot? You were there?”

The man paused, gripping the staff between his hands viciously, “You’re not jerking me around… are you? You really don’t remember me?”

The Half Lunar winced and shook his head again.

“Golbez dying in ignorance of his victor? This simply will not do!” the mind mage looked put out.

“Die? Who said I’m gonna die?” Ben lowered his brows. He knew he should be fighting the stranger, but he couldn’t help but harbor more curiosity for this odd mage who claimed to know him from times past. Curiosity for what secrets he might know.

“Well, considering my staff is tipped with an incredibly deadly poison… I don’t know that you have much of a choice here,” the light glittered dimly from the metal of his face plates as he turned his head.

Opal gave a sharp, horrified gasp. Her eyes glanced toward the battlefield where Cecil and Edge still worked unsuccessfully to whittle down the illusionary Knight.

“Don’t even think about it, sweetie,” the stranger waved a finger at her. “You really don’t want to involve yourself in this. So just sit back, keep your mouth shut and you won’t get hurt.”

She gave a quiet, sobbing hiccup, pale face fixing on Ben in overwhelming concern.

Poisoned blade, hun? Well then, if that’s the case…

Ben let himself stumble back, propping his shoulder against the leaning stone wall. His voice fell weak and wavery, “Why… are you doing this?”

“Why? Simple. Because I am O.M.E.G.A.,” the man told him.

O.M.E.G.A.?

As if in response to Ben’s thought, he continued, “Oh, yes. You don’t know, do you? I was another of Zeromus’ little pet projects in the Tower of Zot. That’s where I got these.”

O.M.E.G.A. tapped at the embedded metal on his cheek. It rang with a dull, solid sound.

“Zeromus..? So is that why you feel…”

“Screwed up beyond recognition?” he quipped a laugh. “Yep. That bastard turned me inside out and back again. I just happened to live through it. Unfortunately. And that would be the short of things.”

“Cecil was one of Zeromus’ greatest foes! Why would you attack him?” Ben coughed, letting out a trembling breath.

“Oh, I’m not attacking him. He’s simply in my way. You’re the one I want to kill, Benjamin,” a slow, sickly smile drew up over O.M.E.G.A.’s face. As he talked he strode nearer, lowering his weapon as he observed the effects of the poison working through Ben’s drooping form.

“But… I’m not controlled by Zeromus anymore. Zeromus is dead,” Ben grit his teeth, peering up into the flame of green eye.

“That may be true. Zeromus is dead. But that doesn’t shut down my internal programming.”

“I don’t understand?” the Half Lunar wrinkled his brow.

“You see, I started out as a prototype for the experimentation that was done to you in Zot. So most of the alterations they did to you were tested on me first. Consider me… Lugae’s little Lunarian guinea pig…”

“You’re a Lunarian?” he couldn’t help but keep the surprise out of his voice.

Was a Lunar. I’m not sure what you’d call me now. Ooglay, would be a good word, I suppose,” he smirked. O.M.E.G.A. leaned back casually as he continued, “The idea behind creating me was to design a creature that could defeat Zeromus’ pet Dark Lord… should Golbez ever happen to break his mind control. I suppose he always knew that was a strong possibility with you. And he wanted to be ready for that day.”

“I see… so… then you were designed to…”

“Destroy you. Yes. It’s pretty much programmed in my head to hunt you down until you’re dead. Sorry… nothing personal, Benjamin,” O.M.E.G.A. gave a slow, somber laugh.

Crouched against the stone wall, Ben shook his head again heavily. It was hard to decide if he felt sorrow or disgust for the creature that stood before him – a Lunar who had been twisted and altered by the same hand that he had. Who knew what history of pain this O.M.E.G.A. carried with him.

“Tell me one thing…” Ben peered up, meeting the single-eyed gaze.

“Sure?” the mind mage answered in a friendly tone.

“If you really know so much about destroying me…” the Master Wizard’s face grew grim, “How come you didn’t know that I was immune to poisons?”

What?!

Not allowing O.M.E.G.A. a moment’s worth of time to recover from the shock of revelation, Ben straightened again to his full height, both hands lashing out with streaming whips of green energy. The magic leapt from his palms, racing to bind the mind mage’s arms and legs, thrusting him back against the far wall. A circle of light outlined around his feet, a shield of nullifying power rising up in an iridescent pillar around the O.M.E.G.A.

All it takes is one disruption in the flow of energy and the Knight will be destroyed. No illusion can hold itself firm without connection to its caster.

“Aarrrrrrrrrrg!” O.M.E.G.A. seemed to realize all too late that he had been played. And he was obviously not happy about it. Both body and mind fought with fiercesome, unholy strength against the bindings that pinned his back to the stone structure. His face had contorted into livid snarl, accented by the pulsing flame of the single eye.

Woah! He’s… already breaking through my…?

Fissures of sizzling green energy began spreading like with a roadmap design over the boundaries of Ben’s nullifying shield. The mind mage was powerful. And he was obviously more than aware of what Ben was trying to do with the shield – even if it only held him for a minute.

Just a little longer…

Shouts of victory began to ring through off the dungeon walls. The huge Knight gave a guttural sound, as close to a human moan as an unliving thing could make. The ground shook one last massive time under Ben’s feet, causing him to stumble. The sounds of the two warriors were enough to tell that that the illusionary Knight had fallen.

Still, the O.M.E.G.A. fought against his bindings, the shield wavering and flickering as their minds began to connect. Bringing down the full force of his focus, Ben found his attempts to invade and overpower the mind mage deflected time and time again.

I’ve never seen someone with so much lasting mind strength! Not even one of the Lunars! Whatever Zeromus has done to him… he is certainly a serious threat…

A threat that he knew he could not let escape from this battle.

Who knows what he might do next time. And if he gets away, there will be a next time… he has said so.

The shield gave a final hiss before it shattered into a spray of green and violet light.

He won’t stop until he’s killed me.

The energy binds on the O.M.E.G.A.’s arms and legs also looked to be weakening. Ben grit his teeth, commanding for more focus, yet finding his mind strangely swimming. A dull throbbing had begun to spread from the wet spot in his back. Something that remotely felt like pain and left him puzzling the consequences, if only momentarily.

-You… will… DIE!-

The voice of O.M.E.G.A. suddenly rang in his head. The force pounding through his skull as the mind mage turned his energies from struggle to attack.

Get out of my head!

Ben snarled, fighting off the invading awareness that had so suddenly descended upon him. He felt something inside begin to panic furiously. The idea that another entity could enter his thought patterns… like Zeromus had once done… was too terrible for him to accept.

–Give it up, Golbez! You are the same sort of monster than I am — nothing more than one of Zeromus’ damned creations! You would do the world a service to eliminate your existence. That is what I have come for… to wipe the world clean of Zeromus’ lingering taint!-

The Half Lunar stumbled back, feeling a spot of weakness suddenly spreading through his limbs. Something within him didn’t want to believe what this creature said could be true. But how could it be denied?

No… I’m here… to get my Crystal. The people here are in danger from it!

O.M.E.G.A.’s face twisted in dark pleasure.

–Since when did the Destroyer of Nations ever care about the people that he destroys? The only real dangers to this world are you… and me. Don’t you see?-

Ben’s breathing had become heavy and labored, and he couldn’t understand why. The poison had no effect on him, this he was sure of. Yet… it felt as if something was sapping the strength out of him.

I… …

The single hell-fire eye burned into his gaze, an image fixed within his mind.

-You can never be free! You are bound to your dark deeds forever.-

A sound, like a choked sob rose to Ben’s ears. He couldn’t tell if it was his own or someone else’s. Vision and magic and sound and light were blurring in a spiral around him. Crushing him. Ripping the breath from his lungs.

Suddenly, a sliver of sound sliced through the deepening mists of his mind. A distant voice. “Ben!! Ben what happened!?”

Chase?

Then another. Porom’s voice, frightened and choked, “He’s bleeding all over! Cecil!! Master Golbez is hurt badly!!”

“Shit! He’s gonna topple! Someone grab him on that side!” Edge swore.

Hands reached for him, trying to lower him to the stone floor. Ben struggled at first, mind still fighting against the enemy that he knew still lay within the shadows somewhere.

“O.M.E.G.A…” the Half Lunar moaned to the person nearest him, though he couldn’t tell who it was. “Where is O.M.E.G.A.?”

Cecil’s voice responded, “O.M.E.G.A.? What are you talking about?”

“The one… who created the illusion. He was here… he did… this… where did he go?” Ben tried desperately to explain in one long sentence between the bursts of pain that suddenly began to rip apart his body. “Ah….. aaaah.. wha…!”

“Stay still! We’ve gotta get some pressure on this before you bleed yourself out,” Edge demanded. That’s when Ben realized the pain he was feeling was the application of cloth being wound around his upper body.

“Ugh… don’t let him… get away!” the Half Lunar protested.

“Golbez. When we got here, there was no one here but you,” Cecil told him quietly.

“No one?” Ben choked.

“No one,” the Paladin repeated.

The Half Lunar took in a sharp breath, “Not even Opal?”

There was a moment of silence before Cecil spoke again. This time, his echo brought a chill rushing over Ben’s body. “Opal? She was with you?”

Ch6-7 Hostage

The Cleric began to shiver, obviously afraid of what O.M.E.G.A. would do to her should they be discovered.
“Just keep moving along, girlie,” O.M.E.G.A. murmured into the young Cleric’s ear.

One arm was wrapped around the girl’s slender throat, the crook of his elbow pressuring just enough to keep her in his grasp. The other hand was capped across her mouth to be sure his escape went unheard.

She was terrified. Every inch of her body radiated the emotion.

Her feet stumbled in fear as he forced her to indicate the fastest method of retreat out of the winding tunnels of the dungeon. After all, if she had been the one to lead Golbez’s party down into the fortress, she was a good pick for a guide to lead the way out.

Besides, if Golbez and company decide to come after me, I want a bargaining chip. This little flower is as good as any.

“Now, now…” Kip told her as she gave a muffled whimper. His voice grew soothing. “What did I tell you earlier? If you cooperate, you won’t get hurt. It’s as simple as that.”

A bubble of thought appeared in the girl’s mind. He could sense each one as they rose, adding to the air-pocket of panic in her head.

“No,” he answered her unspoken question. “I have no interest in taking a prisoner back with me. Not even one of the Clerics of Troia. I leave that sort of stuff to Pren.”

A sharp hiss of air escaped her nose. Maybe it was reaction to his answer. Or maybe it was her realization that the O.M.E.G.A. had read her thoughts.

Kip pulled her to a stop at the appearance of a long, dim hallway that stretched to the right and left of them. Somewhere in the distance, the sound of battle still filtered down through the open window high above their head. It was fully day now – harder to make an unnoticed escape… but that’s where his mind magery came into play.

“Which way?” he asked her.

The Cleric motioned faintly to the left. With his mind senses locked upon her every action and reaction, O.M.E.G.A. knew that she was telling the truth.

“Left it is,” he gave a soft quip, moving them into the shadows of the hall.

More unspoken questions began to fill her mind. Where he came from and why he was doing what he was. These things Kip left unanswered – it was just better that way. Finally, after a long while of walking in silence and thought, the O.M.E.G.A. spoke.

“Everything I said to Golbez was true, you know,” Kip murmured. Even though the last part of his conversation with the Master Wizard had been internal dialogue, it had been the most important. The seed of self-doubt had been planted in Golbez’s mind.

And once doubt wheedles its way into your self-perception, things start to become tricky. Real tricky.

“Do you actually think you can trust Golbez? Any more than you can trust someone like me?” O.M.E.G.A. gave a sharp barking laugh. “We are two of the same mold. Don’t you see? We were created from the same darkness to serve the same Master. Don’t let his ways fool you. He’s just as much a monster as I am..”

And moreso. I am surprised that Zeromus never achieved an Awakening from the boy. Benjamin still hasn’t discovered Sygnus yet…

Kip knew this for sure. The first thing he had sought to discover was if Sygnus was going to be an issue he’d have to face. But not even a trickle of awareness of the creature’s existence surfaced in the Half Lunar’s mind as they had battled.

Though, even without Sygnus, he has grown so much more powerful than I would have thought. Much more so than the last I saw him…

The sound of motion in the halls made the O.M.E.G.A. pull up sharp, pressing his back to a crevice in the wall. Armored footsteps echoed on the stone floor as troops – human troops – began to rush into the corridor.

Mmm… this is going to get more complicated, I see.

The Cleric began to shiver, obviously afraid of what O.M.E.G.A. would do to her should they be discovered. For as long as they went undetected, he had no need to use her as a shield. But the moment they were threatened…

“Don’t move,” he told her, his own body falling absolutely still. Still as stone. Sill as the cold rock against his back

-You don’t see anything. There is no one standing here.-

Twisting tendrils of mind-though wove around them as the soldiers approached. The girl fought hard to stay still, though a reflexive shivering still took her limbs from time to time. As O.M.E.G.A. wove the cloak of control, the human troops passed a mere four feet in front of them. They carried the smell of blood and armor, determined faces contrasting the tattered look of clothes and gear.

-Nothing is here…-

Not a single one so much as glanced their way.

-Keep walking, now. Keep walking and do not return back this way… this hall is clear.-

Finally, the last of the soldiers vanished around the far corner, leaving them to silence. The girl gave a choked sound under the flat of his hand, caught somewhere in the middle of dismay and awe of the mind mage’s manipulations.

“Come on. Admit it. You liked that,” Kip chuckled at her stricken look.

She shook her head, adamantly.

“Not even the least bit impressive?”

She shook her head again, looking unhappy at how easily he could laugh at her expense.

“Alright… alright. Sheesh,” Kip muttered. “Tough audience.”

He poked his head into the corridor to see if it was clear. Then he nudged his captive forward, the way that the troops had come from.

“I don’t like this any more than you do. I promise,” he told her. “If it were up to me, this would have been over with back there.”

But it wasn’t. Golbez was still alive. And O.M.E.G.A.’s illusionary creature had been dispelled.

The boy’s smart… he’s still got his grandfather’s wit about him even if he lost out on everything else. He played on every advantage he had back there…

Kip gave a grumbling snort at the thought of the encounter.

No one told me he was immune to poisons! Light, Zemus! If you’re gonna set me up to kill someone, at least give me all the information I need to do it!

Not that Zemus ever had any reserve in seeing O.M.E.G.A. get himself killed. But still.

Shove a bladed staff into his back, leave a gouge half a foot wide and he doesn’t so much as flinch! What in Shiva’s name did they do to that kid in Zot? Even I feel it when I get sliced up… despite all my metal plates.

O.M.E.G.A. gave one long, self-miserable sigh.

Damn Lugae! Turning us all into monsters…

The Cleric suddenly pulled up to a sharp stop, almost stepping on his toes. They collided about for a moment, his own form standing firm against her light weight. But it was enough to stop him from walking forward.

“What is it?” Kip frowned, dragged out of the depths of his thoughts.

His eye turned to glance in the direction that the girl was staring. That was when he realized that main arch of the castle of Troia stood off to one side – the girl had successfully led him to the exit. However, the Cleric’s eyes were not fixed on the gate.

Battle must have raged long and hard right there at the bridge into the castle. Mangled bodies of both Daear and humans lay strewn in various poses of death upon the stone courtyard. Blood ran in thick streams, staining the cracks of the cobbles in pools of dark crimson. The daylight sun seemed hazy in battle-cloud, the air still and heavy with the feeling of lingering death.

The girl gave a strangled sound, fighting to turn her head from the vision. Releasing his hold on her somewhat, O.M.E.G.A. allowed the Cleric room to grieve.

“Mmmm…” the sound that came from Kip’s throat was one of sympathy to the girl’s reaction. He couldn’t help it – sometimes he still had the mind mage reflexes that were ingrained into him by the teaching of his first, real Master.

He pulled the girl’s slumping form away from the gristly vision, settling her against a wall around the corner. Though she was no longer bound by his hold, neither did she have the strength to run away.

“Nations rise and fall,” he told her in a heavy voice. The ghosts of his own past were just as gristly. “People live and die by the orders of their rulers. I have seen a world devoured from within by the greed of those who controlled it. You cover your eyes from it, here and now. But you’d do well not to forget, Cleric of Troia.”

She lifted her startled violet eyes to search his face. What she saw there in that moment, he didn’t know. Nor did he really want to.

O.M.E.G.A. rose to his feet. “I am here to carry out my final mission… to destroy the Darkstar that has brought this second plague down upon the Blue Planet. And when that is done, I, too, will disappear… taking with me the last of Zeromus’ taint on this world.”

The girl squinted at him with furrowed brows. Then lowered her face to shake her head.

I know you don’t understand this. It’s okay… I don’t expect you to. No one else does either.

“Whelp, I’ve got a rift to catch,” Kip leaned back, taking a deep breath in. The scent of blood and battle filled his nose – certainly not a pleasant thing. He gazed down at her for a moment before he began to walk away, “You watch your back, kid.”

O.M.E.G.A. felt the soft violet eyes on his back a moment before he turned the corner, making his way towards the gates of the ruins of the Troian fortress. Closing his mind to the feeling, he forced the trickle of unwanted sympathy out of his system.

Sympathy should not exist. Nothing but battle awaited him – battle and death.

There is no escaping what we’ve become, Golbez. Until we meet again…