Ch7-1 Summoning

“I need you to Summon me into the Living World.”
“Rydia…”

She heard a voice call her name.

An unfamiliar and gravelly voice, it seemed to speak the Common language, wrapped in a strange, flowing accent. In all her years spent traveling from one nation of the Blue Planet to another, and even to the moon, Rydia had never heard such an accent before.

The Caller knew that she was asleep. That the voice had come to her in the middle of dream-mist. Despite this, she found she was quite able to will her eyes open and turn her head in the direction that the voice had come. And there she found a sight far too breathtaking to believe it had been something that her mind could have woven from its own imagination.

A created dream-scape?

All around her, the clouds billowed in plumes of multicolored light. She realized that she must have been standing on ground that was positioned high up in the sky. But it seemed like solid earth and grass under her feet – in fact there was a whole garden of flowers and trees that stretched out in front of her.

What is this place?

There were islands in the sky – floating as if it was the most natural pastime for islands to undertake. Some were large enough to support whole forests, even singular small mountains. Some were smaller, merely dotted with grass and a prism of colored flowers. A few of the islands were connected to each other by way of narrow white bridges, which looked to be made of some sort of white flaxen material, though the breeze seemed not to stir them.

Rydia felt her eyes drawn to the small garden that nestled before her. As the Caller made her way down the stone step path, she couldn’t help but marvel at how real it all felt. The grain of stone under her bare feet. The smell of grass and flowers and trees. The tinkling sound of distant running water. The way the wind stirred tendrils of her hair across her cheek.

Though she was aware enough to will her own body to do as she pleased, there was the sense that something else, something much larger than herself, had orchestrated the wondrous scene. Despite this sensation, Rydia found that she wasn’t afraid. If anything, she felt calmed.

Where are you – the one that has sent for me?

The Caller stopped as the stone of the path vanished into a wreath of wildflowers that ringed about a small crystal pool. She caught her breath as she felt the vast presence for the first time — too immeasurable to believe that it could share the same tiny dream-scape with her.

“Hello, Rydia of Mist,” the voice spoke again. Much larger now, the sound seemed to come from every direction. And yet it was welcoming. Gentle and soothing.

A glimmer of hazy white began to unfold before her eyes, expanding and growing to completely fill her vision. Great pristine wings seemed to unfurl out of the very fabric of existence, stretching to rival the pure brilliance of the clouds. Two radiant blue-green eyes shimmered down upon her, the secrets of existence locked within their depths. Framed in wisps of soft white mane, the great head rose up, towering immense above the Caller.

A white Dragon!?

It was like no Dragon that Rydia had ever seen upon the Blue Planet. Even Bahamut would not have been able to rival such a masterful creature. And though she still did not feel particularly alarmed by the creature’s presence, she found herself with a distinct loss of words. The Dragon, however, seemed to have little trouble starting up the conversation.

“I must apologize for the lack of warning for bringing you here. I suppose it’s not often that the Summoner finds herself the one Summoned?” there was a droll, warm humor in the creature’s tone that somehow lightened Rydia’s heart. Even though she knew serious words were going to follow.

“No, my lord,” Rydia found her voice, the words coming formally as they always did the first time she met with such creatures. Though something about this Dragon was different from the others she had met – it was extremely hard for her to believe that he was merely another Summoned Monster. “Is there something that you require of me?”

“Glad you asked,” the Dragon replied casually. “As a matter of fact, there is.”

The Caller took in a deep breath, her mind flickering with thoughts of why a being of such stature would have any need of her. She merely folded her hands in front of her and awaited the Dragon’s request.

“The fact that you are able to speak with me here, by itself, says that you are the one to help me. I assumed that what the Earthians of the Blue Planet call a Summoner would be the closest thing to Drei’distau,” he told her, shaking out his forelock.

“I’m afraid… I’m not sure I understand?” Rydia replied slowly, searching for the meaning behind the Dragon’s strange words.

“The short of it is,” the white finned ears perked forward as the sleek muzzle drew closer to her. A warm, pleasant odor – like a field of sunlit flowers — filled her senses. “I need you to Summon me into the Living World.”

Rydia craned her head back, green eyes wide. For loss of any coherent answer, the Caller could only stare at the Dragon in stunned silence.

“Come now, it’s not that strange of a request, is it? You do this sort of stuff all the time,” his tail flicked back and forth in slow sweeps over the grass.

“Yes, I do but…” She didn’t know how to tell her that it was the first time that a creature had ever appeared in one of her dreams, requesting her to Summon it.

“Granted, this might be a bit more difficult than your average Summon. I’ve not existed on a physical plane for a very long time. But you are the perhaps the only one left that can pull me back into Being,” the Dragon said softly. “Therefore, I humbly request your help, Rydia of Mist.”

Humbly..? My help?

A million questions began to flutter around in her mind. Who was this Dragon? Why did he not exist on a physical plane – it seemed to be suggested that he had at one time? And what could Summoning him do to fix such a situation?

I’m no dimensional-material mage. Maybe he’s mistaken me for someone else?

“No,” the Dragon surprised her with an answer to the unspoken. “There is no mistake. I simply need a connection on your plane that can pull me through. I will do all the rest.”

“But why do you wish to come here… if I may be so bold to ask?”

“Do you really need to ask?” he blinked down at her. “You already sense what trouble is in store for your world. The humans of your land are fighting back a darkness which they have little knowledge to battle against. I fear the worst for your people – there are things that have been set into motion which must be seen through.”

“The destruction of the Crystals?” Rydia said somberly.

“Yes. This is something that cannot be undone,” the Dragon nodded slowly. “It was because of their destruction that I have become aware once more.”

The Caller peered up with a questioning look.

Needing no further prompting, the creature continued, “You might say that the Crystals and I have a deep… connection. It was designed so that if anything should happen to their balance, I would awaken again. Unfortunately, I am not the only thing that has begun to stir due to the destruction of the Crystals.”

“The Daear?” Rydia replied — half question, half statement.

“You are on the ball, aren’t you? Very good,” he answered, lowering his great head to peer at her, blue-green eyes blinking. “Yes, the Daear have also slowly come out of their state of suspension. Now that the Red Moon no longer orbits the Blue Planet, the connection between the Crystals on the Earth and the Crystals on the Moon has grown distant and strained. But it cannot be broken – for all of these Crystals were created together, all by the same hand.”

“So, when the Red Moon left…” she mused, quietly rubbing her cheek with one finger.

“It began to shift the natural balance of the Blue Planet due to the strain on the elemental Crystals,” the Dragon nodded, looking grim.

“But why didn’t we know about all this before the Moon left the orbit?” Rydia spread her hands. “We could have found some way to communicate with the Lunarians to prevent something like this from happening? Didn’t Master FuSoYa foresee this trouble?”

“SoYaFu is not always the omniscient sage you think he is, young Caller,” he chuckled softly in reply. It came as a deep, gravelly sound – one that was pleasant to the ears. “I don’t know that he was thinking about what might happen with the Crystals when he made his choice to separate the Red Moon from the Blue Planet. He does sometimes get very narrow-minded when he has a particular goal he’s wishing to achieve.”

Rydia blinked. She had never heard anyone talk about the High Lunarian Sage in such a way.

This Dragon… speaks as if he knows all about who we are. Even the Lunars.

“Benjamin should have known better, though,” the tone turned to disapproval. “Though I suppose just coming to his senses like he did, I can’t really blame the boy for not being more aware as to the Crystals’ effect on things.”

Now she was really lost, “Benjamin?”

“Oh, that’s right. You don’t know,” the Dragon chuckled, though the tilt of his head was apologetic. “You would better remember him as Golbez.”

“Golbez!?” her jaw dropped as she felt a sudden churning in the pit of her stomach. “But… didn’t he leave with–”

“Long story. Let’s cut it short,” he interrupted. “You don’t have a lot of time to get the details. And I know it’s a lot. But let’s just say – Golbez has returned to the Blue Planet in order to aid his brother. He was the one that made the faulty Key Crystal that’s causing all this trouble to begin with.”

Ah! So that’s what that other, strange Crystal was? The one the Lunarian girl had…

“Yes, that is a Key Crystal,” the Dragon answered her thoughts again. “It wasn’t fully completed and balanced, however. I’m not sure that Golbez could have ever achieved that, to tell the truth. Not as he is now.”

“Is this… what he meant to happen? You said that Golbez was helping Cecil?”

“No, I don’t think this is what Golbez would have wanted to come from his creation,” his voice gave a soft sigh, “I don’t think Golbez realized how many powers out there would want to obtain the Key Crystal once he had made it. Which is exactly what happened – someone stole it. When you go and make an artifact of this sort of potential, it’s all too obvious to the powers-that-be-watching.”

“But… I thought we took care of that sort of thing during the Crystal Wars?” Rydia frowned. It wasn’t a cheerful thought to consider that there were other nasty powers looming over their planet after having taken down one such as Zeromus.

“Let me tell you something sad, Sunshine,” the Dragon shook out his mane, tail twitching again. “There’s always something else out there waiting for its time to unfold… whether you know it or not. That’s just the way of things.”

The Caller looked down at her feet, feeling suddenly small in the vast flow of events. Small and foolish — to have allowed herself to think that one small battle in the long continuum of time was enough to ensure the safety of all for the rest of existence. But it had been a pleasant dream.

“That’s not to claim that what you have done in the past was not important… but that’s all another story,” his voice softened, sensing her dejection. “It’s just to say, one must continue to be watchful. Earning peace over a world is difficult. Maintaining it is just as trying. This is hardly the time to give up.”

Rydia nodded slowly. What the Dragon said made enough sense.

“Besides… you have help. There are those, such as myself, who also watch over your people,” the blue-green eyes seemed gently pained. “I assure you, I want to do what I can to make this transition as smooth as it can possibly be for your world. It’s not going to be easy… because this is all balanced so finely on the edge of disaster.”

She took in a sharp breath.

“I won’t yank your leg. That’s the truth of it.”

“I… understand…”

“But there’s not much I can do for anyone… not when I’m stuck in the middle of this void,” the Dragon reverted the conversation back on it’s original path. “There’s far too much to explain at the moment. You’re going to have to trust me on this. Work with me. Help me out?”

“I…” Rydia slowly lifted her gaze to study the huge beast that stood before her. Such a powerful entity, asking for her help and her trust… claiming to want to give his aid to the people of the Blue Planet. As strange a position as she was in, something inside of her did believe him. And she couldn’t really comprehend why. “Okay… I’ll do what I can.”

It was funny to see the Dragon’s reaction. Everything about him perked up — like a cheerful puppy. “You will?”

“If you really think I can…”

“Don’t sweat it. When the time comes, I’ll show you what to do,” a big Dragony grin broke over his face. Though it might have been a trick of the light, she swore that he winked at her. “For now, just let this talk be our little secret, okay?”

Rydia nodded slowly as another thought occurred to her. “Can I ask what I should call you? It’s somewhat hard to Summon something when you don’t know its name…”

“Ah, that is true, isn’t it?” The creature’s smile widened, “I am known as Dreigiau.”

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Ch7-2 White Mage, Black Secret

“You lived in Mysidia but you were never one of us…
not if you talk like that! ”
“Newt…why did you back talk the Queen of Baron like that?” AC sighed out of the blue, his chin balanced on the open palm of one hand.

Despite the fact that the young Black Mage always seemed to get caught up in any punishment that was dropped upon his White Mage roommate, he was still surprisingly patient about the situation. Even now, it was more of a sad sigh than a reprimand.

“Yeah, well, if I had known that being ‘in the service of the Crown’ meant pet n’ brat-sitting, then I might have kept my mouth shut,” Newt grumbled in reply.

“Is it possible?” AC’s question was wide-eyed and innocent. From anyone else, it would have been a cut-down.

“For me to keep my mouth shut? You’re right… probably not.” Newt let the comment slide, leaning back against the stone wall of the Baronian outer gate. His blue eyes scanned off across the open countryside, studying how the green of the hills eventually misted away into the darker green of forest.

The White Mage wasn’t really up to beating on AC at this point. Especially since Palom had been doing more than his fair share of ragging on the Black Mage over the past few days. Almost enough to make him just a bit sorry for the kid…. Almost.

How the hell did I get mixed up in all this shit anyhow?

He knew the answer to that…. It all began after the Elder and the group of researchers left Baron, followed shortly by the departure of King Cecil and his party. That’s when the Newt and AC had found themselves summoned to a conference by Queen Rosa. There, the two Mages had been informed that they had been hand-picked to do ‘service for the Crown’ as ‘representatives of Mysidia’.

Representatives my ass! Hand-picked by who? I bet it was that damned Elder Max.

Such an order was impossible to argue against, despite the fact that Newt wanted nothing to do with service to any crown. Except to show them exactly where they could shove the crown — but that was a different story.

Max and the Queen probably planned all this shit before he left. Everyone knows the Elder just wants to piss me off any chance he gets, and it’s hard to believe that Queenie would forget me talking smack at her in the healing chambers.

It wasn’t until afterwards that he discovered what task his ‘service to the Crown’ would lead him to do. It did nothing but add insult to injury.

They stuck us watching over Palom and Nodd! The brat who’s so full of himself that it’s coming out of his ears… and Golbez’s talking pet cat! What the hell do they think I am – the nanny service?

Nodd — that was a name that Newt wished he had never heard. Because now he found himself swearing it ten times an hour: Nodd—don’t do that! Nodd– get down from there! Nodd— just go get your fool self killed so we can feed your remains to the dogs! Dammit, Nodd, this is my fist and there is your face – they’re going to be meeting really soon!

Luckily enough, Nodd was already off to sleep – even at the first hints of sundown. The kit had some really strange hours when it came to the normal everyday things. But that was not in the least bit surprising to Newt. So, for now, there was a bit of peace and quiet with Nodd out of the picture.

Not that Palom was much better company to have. And he currently was making his presence known, shadowing the two older Mages every waking moment.

The kid is practically begging for a beating.

Every chance Mr. Mysidian Genius could find to trash AC was eagerly exploited. It was a relentless tirade of insults and arrogant hostility that left Newt disgusted… and jealous.

He’s my roommate – not yours, you punk-nose snot.

“Are you kidding?” Palom snorted. He sat perched on the stone wall a few feet away, an annoying little twitter-bird that just wouldn’t shut up. “Newt’s mouth is like an open sewage drain — always spitting crap out. And most of it isn’t even his own.”

The red-haired White Mage turned with a glare. “You better watch your own mouth before I come over there and knock your attitude off that wall.”

“Right… like I’m scared of some pansy White Mage,” the boy taunted.

“I almost canned, labeled and shipped your ass out last time,” Newt snarled. “You were lucky the Elder came in time to save you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” there was a sharp glint in Palom’s eyes.

“Guys… don’t…” AC murmured, peering back and forth between them, as if it would do any good.

“Bottom line? You’re just a wuss who can’t even fight your own fights,” the White Mage ignored AC’s protest and spat off to one side. “You always gonna hide behind the Elder’s robes your whole life? It must be nice to be such a pampered little pet. They dress you up real pretty, too.”

“You take that back!” Palom had hopped down from the wall and was stalking towards Newt with a dangerous look.

“What? You can’t take the heat of the truth, can you?”

“You’re just jealous that the Elder recognizes that I rock so much more than the rest of you!”

“Oh, give me a break!” Newt waved the boy off with a motion of dismissal. “Next thing you’re going to say is you expect to become the next Elder of Mysidia!”

“Yeah, well, what if I do?” Palom ground his teeth in frustration.

The White Mage peered over for a moment before promptly laughing in the boy’s face.

Palom’s glare turned more dangerous.

Newt managed to sneer around his laughter, “Go ahead… there’s not much left to that mud-pile city to be Elder over, anyhow!”

AC took in a sharp breath that spoke his disapproval. Pain and disgust covered the Black Mage’s usually quiet expression.

“You’re wrong,” Palom choked. The overwhelming dismay at the memories of the destruction of his home was all too apparent. He bit his words off one by one. “You lived in Mysidia but you were never one of us… not if you talk like that! We’re going to go back there and build it all back again. Right down to the last stone. And it will be even better than it ever was before! You just wait and see!”

The White Mage fell silent, for once deciding it was probably better not to kick-when-down. There was a nagging sense that he should probably admit that his last statement was way out of line, but he kept his mouth pressed into a firm frown.

No way in hell I’m going to apologize to that punk.

“I hope so…” AC’s voice was quiet in response to Palom’s determination, his violet eyes fixed on the toes of his boots.

“I thought Baron was your home town?” Newt glanced over, attempting to make a quick change of subject.

“It was…”

“So where’s your rich daddy at, then?” Palom jumped at the chance to get his own jabs in. “He hasn’t come to pick you up and take you home yet?”

“No…” AC murmured, his voice still low. “And he never will.”

“What the hell kind of father is that?” Newt snorted.

“The kind who disowns his son to the Mysidian Academy because he is a magic user,” AC answered quietly.

“You gotta be kidding me. He tossed you out of the inheritance just because you could use magic?” the White Mage scowled, putting his hands on his hips.

The Black Mage sucked on his bottom lip. “And I don’t even do that very well, either.”

“Dude… that sucks…” Palom muttered. For some reason, his motivation for insults had dwindled mercifully for that rare moment. “What does he have against Mages?”

“I’m really not too sure,” AC answered slowly. “He just never tried to understand… not like my mother did. Sometimes, when I look back, I think that my mother might have also been a magic user – she just never showed it to anyone. I think because of what my father would do.”

“Your old man sounds like a real prick,” Newt snorted.

“Yeah, how’d he end up even getting hitched in the first place?” Palom scowled his disapproval.

“It was one of those arranged marriages… you know, the kind nobles are famous for,” AC’s own face mirrored disapproval. And sadness.

“You talk like you’re not one of them high and mighties,” the White Mage prodded him.

“I’m not,” AC shook his head. “Not anymore. Not if it means I end up like my father.”

“We’ll see,” Newt sneered, though only half-heartedly. It was true that the Black Mage hardly acted like the snobbish higher classers that he had met in the past. But still…

He was raised by them rich bastards. It’ll probably only be a matter of time before he starts wearing a red velvet mantle around and demanding I make him some tea or some cracked shit like that.

“Yeah, well, what about you?” Palom leveled a finger in the White Mage’s direction.

“What about me?” the red-haired man glowered back.

“You must have had a lousy set of parents to turn out the way you did,” the boy jeered, his tone oozing jest. He didn’t seem to know how close he was to getting his head torn off.

Instead of giving into the wave of rational violence that bubbled up through his system, Newt pressed his lips closed firmly. His cold blue eyes spoke all the fury that needed to be said.

Palom backed up a step. He seemed to realize, a moment too late, that he might have just said something seriously wrong. Quickly, he moved to cover it, “Yo… I didn’t mean anything by it. Really?”

“Lousy set of parents?” the White Mage half snarled. He realized his fists were balled at his sides and could only imagine the ire that must have been streaked across his face. From the expression of the two Black Mages, it must not have been a pleasant thing to behold.

But thinking about the past did that to him.

“Newt… I think he’s saying that he’s sorry…” AC’s voice was quiet. He didn’t seem to really want to get into the middle of the conversation. If anything, the boy’s glances toward the White Mage were leery and apprehensive.

And you’ve got every right to be.

“I’ll tell you about a lousy parent!” Newt’s voice rose, echoing off the side of the gate wall.

“Chill out, man… I was just being stupid, okay?” For once, even Palom seemed to know better than to want to scrap with the White Mage. Both of his hands were motioning for Newt to gather a piece of mind that wouldn’t be found. Not at this point.

His mouth opened and the anger just poured out, “My bastard of an old man was a raging drunk who thought that wife beating and child abuse was the nation’s number one pass time. Nothing good that I ever got in my life came from anything he ever did for me. Hell, when I was a kid, I thought my second name was ‘dumbass’ until I finally got old enough to know better.”

Palom gave a sheepish look, fixing his eyes on the base of the stone wall. It was obvious he didn’t know what to say in return. And it was just as obvious that Newt was going to have his say about it, right up until the bitter end.

“You wanna know why I’m on the black list, kid?” the red haired man growled, bunching a fist at the world.

Palom shook his head.

“You wanna know why the hell I was locked behind bars at the age of fifteen?”

Palom shook his head again, voice weak, “No…”

“You wanna know why I was sentenced to death in my city… but by law they were forced to hold me until I was sixteen?”

“Noo… I…”

“Because I killed my bastard father — that’s why!” the glint in Newt’s eyes had turned animalistic and feral. The murderous fact was well known – to himself… to the people of his old home town… even to the Elder. But it was the first time he had ever admitted it out loud in his own words.

To a couple of sniveling punk kids that don’t know their finger from their ass. How can they possibly comprehend?

A whooshing sound escaped the small gap between AC’s lips. The Black Mage’s face had fallen absolutely colorless.

Here you have it, kid… the guy you’ve been rooming with is a murderer. Wonderful world, isn’t it?

AC’s expression of shock was enough to strike a twinge of shame somewhere in the back of Newt’s mind. Something that quickly got avalanched in the mounting pressure of his pent-up anger.

Maybe now, that he realizes what I really am, he’ll piss off…

“That’s right,” Newt continued, jerking his hands up to make a point. “With these hands. In cold blood.”

AC winced, taking a step back. Palom looked a little ill.

“Now how’s that for a screwed up life? Huh?” the White Mage just shook his head, glaring one last time at the two boys before he turned on his heel and marched away. “So now that you know, leave me the hell alone!”

Newt’s steps carried him out across the slowly sloping hill towards the light brush at the bottom. The other two didn’t try to stop him from leaving. Nor did not follow him. Very soon, the White Mage was left by himself, standing on the edge of the Baronian forest.

Why the hell did I go and tell them that?

The sounds of encroaching night blanketed his senses with a calming effect that began to help simmer down the boil in his blood. Something about being alone, standing upon the sliver of time where day met night always did something to soothe the fury within him.

Why did I have to go and remember him? All of that is over with now, isn’t it?

Even the thoughts of his father, who he had fought so long to forget, slowly washed away as he gazed at the flourish of color that graced the skies above the tree line. Newt became more aware of the cold breeze upon his bare arms.

Or will I keep paying for what I did for the rest of my life?

He drew in a deep breath, running his fingers through the crimson of his bangs.

Does it even matter anymore?

Newt’s gaze slid off across the gathering darkness of the forest floor. That’s when he saw something glimmer in the passing shadows.

Hrm?

The White Mage blinked for a moment, his previous train of thought vanishing for the new-found moment of interest. Then he squinted, walking slowly forward, towards the spot of light he had seen.

His boots crunched twigs and leaves underneath without prejudice. His gaze struck straight ahead, marking the spot in his line of vision where he had last seen the phenomenon occur. And he saw it again.

There! There is something there!

The closer Newt came, the more of the light he began to make out. Why it never occurred to him to try and use more stealthy tactics of approach, he never even stopped to wonder. As he parted the frond curtain that fell between himself and the source of the light, the White Mage found himself face to face with a pair of cold, clear eyes.

“What the hell..?” he heard his voice ask, as if from a distant.

The light rose, gathering itself up before him. As the ghastly features of the creature became clearer, a brick of nausea struck his gut and nearly caused him to double over. Newt staggered back a step, mouth parting with a hissing rasp.

The rasp broke into a shattered scream as the ghost-light leapt upon him.

Ch7-3 Ghostly Ambush

With a tremendous growl of fury and anguish, Newt drove a burning white fist of holy magic straight into the creature’s opened skull-mouth.
For a staggered second of silence, AC could feel the world moving under his feet. The motion made him dizzy somewhere in the depths of his mind. His violet eyes were still fixed on where the spot of white that had been Newt’s back finally disappeared into the shadows of the oncoming twilight.

Newt… killed his own father…?

A salty taste seeped in slow tendrils through his mouth. AC had bitten the inside of his lip and now it was bleeding. It seemed strangely fitting for that one, vast and overwhelming moment, matching the one pattern of thought that echoed in his mind.

How can it be? Is he really a murderer?

The Black Mage shied away from the final word. As if he was disgusted to pin such a title on anyone – especially the foul-mouthed, White Mage roommate that he had worked so hard for months to befriend.

Or is there something else he’s not telling us?

AC had believed that he could do something to help someone else, if only just this once. When he looked at the ill-tempered White Mage, he had seen someone who was as cast out and lonely as himself. Newt just had a different way of dealing with the prison of solitude that had been erected around him.

There must be something more to this.

And because they were so much alike in that one way, AC had wanted nothing more than to try to show Newt that there were people out there that could understand some of what he was going through. That there were people who gave a care and would try to accept him, no matter how hard the White Mage tried to shove the world away.

The Elder knew of Newt’s past. The Elder was the one that assigned Newt to room with me. I can’t believe that the Elder would allow a murderer to live in the Mysidian Academy along with the students.

Very slightly, AC felt his head nod as a trickle of relief broke through the tension.

Yes… if the Elder believes in Newt enough to take him in… then I won’t doubt the Elder’s choice.

The Black Mage drew in a slow, deep breath. The soft chill of the approaching night filled his lungs in a crisp, cleansing way.

I’m going to find out what really happened to Newt.

“Shiva…” Palom hissed under his breath. It was the first word that the boy had said since Newt had left. When his brown eyes turned to question AC, the usual jeering expression was missing. “Do you think he’s really telling the truth?”

“One thing I’ve learned about Newt… he tells his side of the truth far too much. I don’t think he’s making it up,” AC replied, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. “But I also don’t think he’s telling us everything.”

“Oh? You think he killed other people too?” Palom perked up with a mischievous look. “Serial killer typa stuff?”

What?” the Black Mage blinked.

“I knew it! He’s as nasty as they come… and that just proves it!”

“No! That’s not what I meant!”

“You said there was more to it?” Palom peered at him.

“I meant, I don’t think it happened exactly like he made it sound. He seemed too upset about it for that to be the whole story,” AC frowned.

“What makes you think so?”

“When was the last time you ever seen Newt walk out on an argument?” the Black Mage motioned with one finger.

“Gooood point,” Palom tapped his chin. “So what do you plan to do?”

AC’s gaze drifted in the direction that the White Mage had vanished. “I’m going to figure out the rest of the story.”

“Why?” the boy looked incredulous.

“Because I think it’s important to hear the whole thing,” the Black Mage replied grimly.

“You’re yanking my chain! You can’t be seriously thinking about still going around talking with him after this?”

“Yeah, I am.”

“You could get yourself killed messing with him!”

“You’re the one that always tries to get into fights with him. Not me,” AC pointed out calmly.

A sick expression blanched over Palom’s face. It was only now that he was reconsidering the consequences of the insults that he had continuously aimed in the White Mage’s direction.

“Besides, I don’t think he’d do anything to me,” AC continued. “And even if he did, why are you suddenly worried about it? I thought you didn’t like me?”

“What? Well, I don’t!” Palom choked. Then he shook his head. “I don’t like you setting your eyes on my sister. But… I don’t want to see you get yourself killed either, you know?”

“Yeah…” AC nodded slowly, looking somewhat more hopeful. That was the first kind thing that the boy had said to him so far. As shocking as the revelations had been to them all, it seemed to have given Palom some groundings at the least.

“So, what do we do?” the boy was staring out at the forest as well.

“I think maybe we should leave him alone for now. I don’t know if he really meant to tell us what he did – maybe that’s why he left so quickly?” AC sucked on his bottom lip, fitting his mage hat over his brow. He fiddled with the brim a bit, making sure it stayed put – those were the worst kinds of hats for flying off at the most inopportune times.

“I suppose you’re ri–”

A hoarse cry shattered the calmness of the night, cutting through Palom’s words like a knife. AC’s head swung around, eyes focusing in the direction the sound had come from. The forest.

“Newt!” the shout escaped his lips before he realized. And suddenly he was off running down the sloping hillside, sliding over the damp night-dewed grass.

“Dude!!” Palom’s shout sprang after him. There was a moment of pause before a second shout followed it. “Dude, wait for me!”

AC could sense that the other Black Mage had also begun to run, chasing behind him. But he didn’t slow his long-legged sprint. Almost stumbling over himself, he slipped down the last long incline as the land bottomed out into the looming forests. Nothing but darkness greeted the Mage’s sight.

“NEWT!? Where are you!!?” his voice was hoarse and frightened. “Answer me!”

Palom jogged to a stop, catching a hold of AC’s shoulder with a heavy pant. “Shiva!”

Again, they heard the deep-throated yell – this time off in the shadows to their left. There might have been words mangled within the sound, but it was too hard to tell. The only thing that could clearly be heard was terror.

“Over there!” Palom pointed before making a dash towards a dimly lit glade in the forest. Sparks of flickering magic had already begun to swirl around the boy, summoned through the sheer force of will and fear. They left a lingering energy trail in the air behind him as he ran.

For a passing moment, AC wished he could do the same thing – that his own magic could be commanded and put to use so easily. Then shoving the thought from his mind, the Black Mage sprinted after Palom toward the source of the bloodcurdling screech.

What they found there froze AC in his tracks.

Newt lay sprawled in the tall grass. His back was arched in a painful angle as he struggled in body-wracking convulsions against the force that had him pinned to the ground by his wrists. His eyes had grown colorless, wide and vacant. They stared in perpetual horror upwards into the overhanging branches, never a once taking notice that the two boys had arrived. His mouth was now gaping wide in a silent scream, only a tiny, suffering gurgle of sound barely escaped his contracted throat.

Something was hunched over top of Newt — something unlike anything AC had ever seen. Its body pulsed in fluctuations of darkness encased in light, a white vaporish mist outlining the distorted form. Two appendages, which seemed like arms, held the White Mage pinned to the ground while a second set pressed down on his chest.

No… they’re stuck into his chest!

The ethereal hands were buried deep inside of Newt’s chest, a bubbling froth of energy splurting with each jerk that the White Mage’s tremulous body made. A ghostly, skull-like vision was superimposed upon mottled, rotted flesh where the creature’s face might have once been. Its mouth was nothing more than a formless cavern of darkness, a black liquid dripping into Newt’s own open-mouthed terror. A pair of burning, clear eyes fixed on the White Mage with an intense madness of a being that was vile beyond anything nature had ever intended to exist.

AC felt himself gag, stumbling back from the sight. His mind reeled at the sense of the tainted energy that came from the specterous creature – energy that it seemed to be force-feeding directly into Newt’s body.

“Get off of him!!” Palom’s shout broke through the overwhelming waves of nausea.

Before AC found a chance to react, a plume of brilliant flame leapt from Palom’s hands, rocketing straight at the creature. There was a strange ripple of sickly blue light as the fire burst through the spectral image. A terrible shrieking howl erupted from Newt’s mouth, despite the fact the flame had not touched him.

The spell is hurting Newt, too?

“Palom!! Stop! I think they’re connected, somehow! You’ll kill them both if you do that!”

Palom withdrew his spell instantly, looking frightened at the scene that continued to play out in front of them. “If we don’t do something, he’s good as dead anyhow!!”

The Black Mage couldn’t find words to respond. His mind was locked upon the battle before them — something was happening.

What?

AC could sense it – a shift in the way the energies were flowing. Though fire spell had transferred damage to both the creature and to Newt, it seemed that the physical pain had also served to sever some of the creature’s control over the White Mage.

Did the flame weaken the creature?

The distant look in Newt’s eyes shifted into sudden fierce awareness, his teeth bared as he started to spit and choke up the thick black liquid. With something like a gurgling roar, every muscle in his body tensed as he began to fight back.

“Newt!” AC’s breath whooshed out of his lungs, feeling a second gathering of energy growing within the glade.

A flash of blinding white illuminated Newt’s hands as he began to draw the sacred power of White Magic around him. Instantly, the specter reared back, giving a shattered screech. Its hands were still embedded into the White Mage’s chest and it could not break away.

“Piss off!” With a tremendous growl of fury and anguish, Newt drove a burning white fist of holy magic straight into the creature’s opened skull-mouth.

As the pure light flooded across the glade, the ghastly features began to melt like wax. Pieces of tainted flesh streamed down in a dull grey liquid over his hand and arm, staining the white of his tunic in a dark, oily slime. The creature’s energy began to waver, the body flailing as the brilliance of the holy aura began to burst through pinprick holes all along the surface of its form. Then with one final bubbling shriek, the light burst it from within, sending a spray of grey matter and sickly blue light across the entire glade.

“AHHH!!” Palom dived behind AC to escape the putrid gush.

“Ugh….” AC could do nothing but stand there, spotted in slime and feeling more sick to his stomach than he had ever in his entire life.

Newt remained lying sprawled in the glade, now covered in a blanket of grey chunks and oozing darkness. He gasped and choked before rolling over on his stomach and gagging up more black fluid. It might have been a trick of the dying light, but AC could swear there were streaks of tears on his face.

After a long moment of silent illness, AC finally gathered his voice, “Newt… what happened… are you alright?”

The White Mage shook his head, trying without success to wipe his face clean. “Shit…”

“Newt?” he took a slow step forward, pain and concern on his face.

“Shit!” Newt choked again. “That thing was doing something to me!”

“Doing what?” Palom peered around AC’s shoulder with an ill look.

“How the hell am I supposed to know? It just jumped me out of the forest!” the White Mage gripped clumps of stained grass between his hands, as he fought to regain his composure. “And then it was like… screwing with my body or something!”

The energy transfer… it was feeding some sort of tainted energy into Newt… but…

“We stopped it before it could really hurt you, right?” AC swallowed.

“I don’t know…” the White Mage tone was grave and dark.

“Dude, I think we need to get you to Rosa,” Palom’s face was uneasy. “Messing with undead stuff… that’s never good. Even if you are a White Mage.”

“You think it was an undead?” AC shivered, peering around.

“I’ve seen undead before,” the boy replied. “Never one like that. But it was pretty close to what I remember…”

All talk in the glade stopped as a distant echo rang in their ears. Sounds of things moving in the forest toward them at an impossible speed. The leaves rattled with abrupt inhuman sounds of screeching and wailing – very much like the sound that ghost creature had made.

“Shiva!” Palom hissed, whipping his head to stare into the forest. “There are more of them out there!”

The forest was suddenly alive with burning eyes, all focused upon the three mages in the glade. The weight of their dark energy was nearly enough to crumple AC to his knees. The overwhelming wave of nausea once again filled his senses, leaving his body weak and unresponsive.

“Come on!” Palom grasped his sleeve, yanking hard. “We gotta split this place, fast!”

“Dammit…” Newt swore, weakly pulling himself up to his feet. “Why does this shit always gotta happen to me?”

AC hissed, feeling his feet start to work as he was pulled along in a mad dash back towards Baron. Behind them, the malice of the night forest raged on their heels, following in a torrent of burning eyes.

Ch7-4 Illusionary Forest

As his gaze turned from the stricken faces of his companions, he saw a tiny black sparrow perched on a low branch not far away.
“Shiva!! They’re everywhere!!” Palom cursed as he came to a sharp halt, nearly causing AC to run right over him. Not missing a stride, the boy was off darting in another direction, dashing madly into the growing shadows of the nighttime forest.

Anywhere. Any direction. As long as they were moving away from those terrible, burning eyes. But the eyes always seemed one step ahead of them. Always leered from just to the side. Or right in front of them. They moved with seemingly no effort. And the three Mages – Newt having just been wounded – couldn’t keep running forever.

“Wait! Not that way!!” AC’s voice was hoarse as he tried to catch the boy’s shoulder, a moment too late. His hand only met with thick, dim air.

This is wrong!

AC’s senses were on fire, every inch of his body reacting to the flow of tainted energy that choked the air around them. His violet eyes could make out the blur of leaf and tree moving in ways they could not naturally move. He wondered if his companions realized that they were caught up in the heart of a dark, deadly illusion. And moving further and further away from the safety of the city.

Nothing in this forest is real!

Palom was unknowingly leading them all straight into the weave of illusionary power. It was hard to believe that such a promising, esteemed Black Mage student of Mysidia seemed unable to sense the things that AC could. However, try as he might, AC was unable to keep the boy from continuing his crazed dash.

I don’t know what these creatures are… but they can manipulate an entire forest in illusion. I’ve never read about anything like this before!

A low groan rose to the Black Mage’s ears, pulling his gaze back over one shoulder. A few paces behind, Newt was struggling to keep up with the pace. Though shorter in stature, the White Mage was far stronger in every degree, and was usually never one to fall behind in physical activity of any sort.

He looks sick…

Newt’s face was still very pale, dotted with beads of perspiration. It seemed like he was doing everything in his power to simply keep one foot moving in front of the other. Still, when Newt realized that AC’s gaze had fallen upon him, the White Mage gave a dark, throaty grumble, “Damn kids…”

“This isn’t the way to the castle,” AC gave a tired gasp, turning his head to keep focus on where Palom was running in front of them.

“What the hell you mean this isn’t the way to the castle?” Newt grated.

“I mean–”

A sudden shriek lit up the night as pulses of light and dark leapt out of the forest upon Palom. The boy had run up ahead a little too far, and seeing that one of the group was now separated, the creatures must have decided to attack.

“Palom!” AC’s breath came in a horrified whoosh as he ran toward the fray. Nothing could be seen of the boy, just a blobbing mass of tainted energy.

“Shit!” Newt threw himself into an all out run at AC’s side. The air began to condense around the White Mage as he once again drew in the weave of holy power. Both hands flew out in front of him, streams of glowing white energy lighting up the underside of the tree canopy for many yards around.

What sort of spell is that?

AC had never studied much about White Magic. It was hard enough for him to make sense of what the Black Magic texts were trying to detail. But whatever kind of magic Newt was using now was unlike anything he had felt before.

As if he just… created it on the spot?

Concentration hung over the White Mage’s sharp features as his focus narrowed in with fierce intensity upon the attacking creatures. Just as it had been before, the holy energy seemed to be quite effective in reaping a response from them.

Is that possible?

A chorus of shattering screeches echoed through the forest as the creatures instantly leapt away from their victim. As they reeled back with convulsions of agony, AC could see their ghastly features melting in streams of oily grey. Again, uncontrollable illness swept through his entire body at the sight – and the stench. The smell of putrid death.

“Palom!?” Newt’s voice bellowed as he slumped. The holy magic drained quickly from the exhausted White Mage’s form.

Palom appeared from out of the retreating group, looking terrified but unharmed, dragging himself on his belly along the ground. His pale face mirrored choked illness. AC raced out to help the boy up as the last of the burning eyes fled back into the shadows. No doubt, they were regrouping to nurse their wounds and consider another avenue of attack.

But their illusion is broken… for now.

“Did they hurt you?” Newt asked quickly, not even seeming to realize he was being concerned.

“No… I’m alright. They just came out of nowhere…!”

“I know,” the White Mage spat in disgust.

“We’ve gotta keep moving,” AC told them sharply.

“How far are we from Baron?” Newt grimaced, eyeing the forest. Prowling sounds came from every side. The creatures were still out there.

“We should be getting close,” Palom answered, unaware.

“No… we’re further than you think,” AC informed the two. “They’ve been leading us through one huge illusion. I was trying to tell you that, but you wouldn’t stop running.”

“You’re kidding me?” Newt grumbled.

“I wish I was.”

“You mean they were yanking us around in circles this whole time?” Palom’s voice grew plaintive and frightened.

“So where the hell do we go? We don’t know where we are! We don’t know where Baron is!” Newt raised his hands and lowered them in a frustrated motion. “And you’re telling me that at any time we could be running through some damn illusion and not even know it?”

“How do we know which way is right?” Palom added with a miserable stare into the shadows.

AC drooped slightly. He had no answer.

Why are they asking me? I’m the loser flunk-out. Just because I can sense what’s going on doesn’t mean I know how to—

A strange, gentle sound suddenly caught the Black Mage’s attention. As his gaze turned from the stricken faces of his companions, he saw a tiny black sparrow perched on a low branch not far away.

Though AC was never one to watch birds, something about this one drew his interest. Maybe it was just the fact that it was the first sign of life that he had sensed in the middle of the dark illusionary magic. Or maybe it was the unusual glint of intelligence that seemed to mark the tiny, beaded eyes.

AC suddenly found himself to be prompted to speak, his voice distant even to his ears. “We’ll follow the sparrow…”

“What…” Palom’s face grew incredulous.

“The hell..?!” Newt added his own flourish to the question.

“Animals… don’t get fooled by illusions,” AC murmured, not knowing how he knew. “Isn’t it weird how there hasn’t been another sign of life in this whole forest so far? Not even night crickets…”

“Dude, you’re nuts!” Palom crossed his arms.

“Our own senses can only be used against us,” the Black Mage replied. “Do you have a better idea?”

“I suppose since we have no way in hell in knowing which direction we’re walking anyhow, one way is just as good as another at this point,” Newt growled.

As if the bird knew it was the topic of discussion, it flitted off the branch to the ground not far away. Turning in bounced circles, it flirted its dark wings before hopping away into another nearby tree.

“Come on,” AC motioned with one hand, trotting off behind it. His violet eyes were fixed on the bird’s every move. And something inside him spoke of strange instinct, deeper than anything he could understand. As if the creature would talk to him if he could only speak the right language.

The footfalls of his companions followed, but they hardly registered upon him. And when the forest began to blend and shift, the illusions of the spectral creatures returning to destroy his sense of direction, AC fixed his vision firmly upon the sparrow. For the one thing the darkness could not seem to touch was the image of the bird as it fluttered from perch to perch.

“I’ll be damned,” Newt’s rough murmur was low. But it was enough to pull AC out of the strange daze that had taken him.

As his vision cleared, the Black Mage realized they were no longer surrounded by the dark overhang of trees. He had no idea how long they had been walking. And now the sky was fully dark with the heaviness of a cloudy night that threatened rain.

Even in the shadows, he could make out the gently sloping glen that lay before them. The line of forest brush stood back respectfully in a near perfect circle as soft summer grass and wildflowers carpeted the slopes that led down into the peaceful opening.

The sparrow had finally landed. As they drew closer, AC was surprised to see that it sat upon some sort of stone structure that was built directly in the center of the clearing. The feeling that came from the place was one of sacred, old magics.

This is amazing… I never knew things like this existed in the Baron forests.

Behind them, angry yowling could be heard. The burning eyes, some now melted and deformed, glared at their back in waves of rage. But the creatures did not follow.

The moment that AC stepped across the unseen barrier he knew. “This is a safe place.”

Newt peered over one shoulder at the smoldering sounds in the forest. “I guess so. Huh… go figure.”

Palom stared up at the tall stone structures as they drew nearer. He reached a hand out and brushed away a layer of moss and grime. “This is an old place… a shrine for the Summoners… Maybe even the ones that eventually went to live in Mist before the War?”

“How do you know?” AC looked up curiously. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could trace the shadows upon the tall stone above. Now that he was nearer, he could tell that it seemed to depict some strange, fierce creature. But somehow, the creature didn’t seem frightening to him. Rather, it was protective.

“I’ve seen some of these symbols before,” Palom indicated the runes that marked the base of the statue. Then his tone turned braggart once more, “I was friends with Rydia of Mist, you know!”

“Oh…” AC replied, feeling sheepish.

Rydia was the foremost Summoner of the Blue Planet. Some said that she was the very last in existence after the terrible fires that had raged through the Summoner village of Mist at the beginning of the Crystal Wars. But beyond that, and what little reading he had done for class, AC didn’t know very much about the Summoners as a whole.

“Well, there’s still something happening in this place. Those bastards aren’t coming near it,” Newt frowned, peering up at the sky. He wiped a string of sweat that had broken out on his brow with the back of one hand. “I guess we should see if there’s somewhere to stick it out here for the night.”

“You think they’ll be gone in the morning?” AC asked in a quiet voice.
The creatures did seem ghostly in appearance. And everyone knew that ghosts only came out at night. But, still…

“I don’t know. But I need a break,” Newt grouched softly. “I wasted myself saving that good-for-nothing punk’s ass.”

Palom turned his head at the White Mage’s comment. Then he gave a slow, thankful grin.

“I think there’s some sort of door over here, guys…” AC squinted, pointing towards a patch of darkness that stood against one wall of the larger stone structure.

“Here, let me check it out,” Palom walked forward, raising both hands in front of him. A burst of warm light appeared between his palms, a small flame that illuminated the surrounding area.

With a twinge of jealousy at the younger Mage’s casting ease, AC reached down and retrieved a nearby stick. Poking it into the flame, the end caught alight, successfully forming a make-shift torch.

“Not bad,” Newt admitted, his blue eyes flicking around for any signs of trouble.

There was nothing but silence and stone.

The shrine was heavily built to weather the passage of seasons. And though the walls were unkempt, hanging with beards of moss and vines, the building was still very much in tact. There were many sculptures of strange creatures that guarded over the short flight of stairs to the narrow entrance. The doorway stood open as if the ones that built it were confident that the shrine needed no such protection with the watchful eyes of the beasts standing over it.

The feeling of old magic seeped through AC’s senses as his boots touched the bottom step of the stairs. It was an alien, powerful feeling. And just for that moment, he began to wonder if the essence of the carvings might really be alive and watching over them.

Maybe if I wrote a report about this I could get extra credit in my magic histories class…

As doorway arched over his head, a shiver ran through his body. It felt as if something unknown was looking straight into his soul… searching to see his intentions… deciding whether or not he was fit to enter such an ancient, sacred place. The others stopped just behind him, the flame of the torch reflecting in their eyes. By their expressions, AC could see that they felt the same thing.

Just as it had come, the pressure evaporated. Streams of quiet light began to trace over the walls. It was nearly imperceptible at first, like something coming awake very slowly after having slept for a long time. The glow rose around them, illuminating the tall shimmering murals that filled every inch of the walls with ancient stories of man and beast.

Behind him, his companions’ breathing was sharp in wonder.

AC took a slow step into the waiting warmth. Somehow, he knew that they had been welcomed to the Shrine of the Summoners.

Ch7-5 The Lunarian Girl

“You are familiar with Golbez?” the Lunarian asked, trying to read the expression on Rydia’s face.
The sound of the door opening drew Rydia from the fringe of her hazy sleep. She didn’t know how many days had passed since the white Dragon had spoken in her dreams. But he had not come again since. Nor had there been any sign of attempted contact from beyond the boundaries of her small, yellow-walled room.

I’ve gotta stay strong…

Slowly the Caller lifted her head as the sound of approaching footfalls pulled her further awake. Though her arms and legs were free of any constraints, she had been leashed to the far wall by a magic-binding collar.

Like some sort of animal.

Try as she might, Rydia couldn’t find a lock on the smooth outer surface of the collar. And something about its touch against her skin was enough to baffle any outside connection that she had with the flow of natural magic.

Which is why I wonder if that dream I had… could have been nothing more than my own imagination.

It had been an hourly debate for her. Was the dream really what it had claimed itself to be – a visitation from some vastly powerful creature that was requesting help from her? Or merely a figment of her exhausted mind and wishful thinking?

Rydia didn’t have the time to consider it further, for a soft voice was beckoning her attention from above. “Hello? Are you awake?”

The Caller squinted up through hazy sleep-vision, finally making out a fine-featured face peering down on her. It was the Lunarian girl, the one that seemed to be some sort of servant for the leader of the forces there. Rydia knew that the leader’s name was Pren – she had overheard that much through speckles of conversation. But she had never discovered the name of the Lunarian girl.

The one that holds the Key Crystal

Rydia blinked, not sure where that passage of thought had come from. Then she realized that it had been part of the conversation that she had with the White Dragon.

But if she has the Key Crystal, why isn’t she the leader? Why does she work for Pren?

Even now, the Lunarian girl stood in the center of the room, a tray of food in one hand. She was there to feed the prisoner. And feeding the prisoner wasn’t the job of someone of high position.

“I’m awake,” Rydia finally found the words to reply. She shifted positions, sitting up to peer curiously at the girl.

“Sorry to bother you,” the Lunarian answered, placing the tray down on the low-sitting table only a short distance away. “I’ve brought you something to eat. I heard that the food the Daear tried to give you the other day made you ill. I can’t eat their food anymore, either. So when I fixed myself something, I thought that you’d like some as well?”

Mouth parting, the Caller could only nod in surprise. It was true that she had only eaten sparingly as of late because all the food that had been brought to her had seemed spoiled. Rydia didn’t know if it was something that they had done to her on purpose. Nevertheless, she was quite hungry now.

“I’m not the best cook in the world. So you’ll have to forgive me,” the Lunarian girl took a step back as if to reassure the Caller.

Not that Rydia thought she would do anything unforeseen. There was something about the girl that seemed honest – even though it was somewhat difficult to overcome the language barrier that stood between them. Words didn’t always translate right between Lunar and Common.

Still, I’m just lucky that the words come out at all. Thank the Light for Lady Asura’s good foreknowledge.

One of the gifts that Rydia had been given upon becoming a Summoner of the Underworld was the ability to understand and speak many kinds of languages. Considering that she had to associate with many different types of creatures with many different ways of communicating, such a skill had been necessary. This ability had been given to Rydia by magical means – though the girl often did enjoy trying to study up on some of the languages on her own.

And luckily enough, Lunarian happens to be one of the languages that translates for me. I wonder how Lady Asura knew enough about the Lunars to gift me with the understanding for their language?

The curiosities never seemed to cease. And the fact that Rydia was there, chained up in a little room on a mountain floating high above the Blue Planet and being offered a meal cooked by an alien girl that had once lived on the moon attested to it.

“Thank you…” the Caller told her, speaking slowly. She found that the translation skill worked best when she spoke at a very measured pace.

Sliding next to the table, she began to eat ravenously. Despite the fact the Lunarian had claimed an inability to cook, the food tasted better to Rydia than anything she had eaten in weeks.

The girl must have sensed that Rydia was enjoying the food, for she gave a small smile. Folding her hands in front of her, she took a step back and gave a slight bow, “If there isn’t anything else I can get for you, I’ll be taking my leave now.”

Rydia found herself choking to swallow the food in her mouth in a very un-ladylike fashion. She managed to spurt out, “Wait?”

The Lunarian paused, tilting her head with a look of curiosity. “Yes?”

It’s the first time I’ve ever seen her come here all alone. She seems sympathetic enough… maybe she can tell me something about what’s going on.

“Will you tell me your name?” Rydia asked carefully, trying not to be too forthright.

“Oh?” the sound was one of startled surprise. As if very few people cared enough to ask her that. “Well… I…”

“You’re the first one who’s shown me such kindness here,” the Caller backed up her motives. “Not to mention, I never expected to see a Lunarian here on the Blue Planet. Not since the Red Moon left the orbit of our world.”

A stream of thought played out on the girl’s face in response to the words. She seemed taken by surprise at the fact that Rydia knew of her origins.

“You must be far away from home, too?” Rydia’s voice came quietly.

“Yes,” the girl finally answered. A choked sound cracked her throat – a sense of true, mournful emotion.

“I’m sorry,” Rydia gave her a gentle look.

This poor girl… why is she here? She looks so scared. I bet there’s more going on here than there seems to be.

The Lunarian peered from behind the wisps of white hair that framed her face. Her next words came as a surprise. “My name is Joran SuKi. Everyone calls me Joran, though.”

The Caller perked up at the introduction, an encouraging look crossing her face, “It is a pleasure to meet you. My name is Rydia. I am a Caller from the Underworld of the Blue Planet. Maybe you’ve heard of the place?”

Joran shook her head slowly. “I’m sorry… I’m not very familiar with anything about the Blue Planet.”

“Oh?” she couldn’t withhold the surprise that rose in her tone. “I was under the impression that Lunarians knew a lot about our world?”

“Perhaps the High Sage FuSoYa, yes. But most the rest of us have never heard about your people before now,” the girl replied with a soft frown.

“Really?” Rydia leaned forward, spooning some of the yellow mush-seeming stuff into her mouth. Despite how it looked, it tasted really good.

“We slept on the Red Moon. We didn’t know that there was a world – the Blue Planet — below us during our slumber,” Joran told her. “And when we woke again, we had arrived at our new home planet.”

“New home planet?”

“Yes. Where we now make our city,” the Lunarian nodded.

“So you found a world to make a new home upon…” Rydia breathed softly through her mouth. “That’s wonderful news.”

Joran simply smiled. It was a sad, quiet smile… as if she was missing that new home a whole lot.

“So, then… what are you doing here?” the Caller prodded very gently. Trying to get to the bottom of the Lunarian’s reaction.

The girl paused for a moment. When she finally answered, there was a deep dismay in her words, “Sometimes, I don’t really know anymore.”

Rydia put her fork down slowly, digesting the last statement with a slow swallow of drink. Carefully, she asked, “What do you mean?”

“Just that… nothing has gone at all the way it should have,” Joran replied with a pained look down at her feet. “And… I don’t even know why I’m telling you this. Except… I’ve watched you for a while, mostly curious because you’re the first human of this world I’ve been so close to. And you seem like a very kind person, just with the way you speak to people here, even if we’re your enemies.”

The Caller remained silent, an encouraging attention on her face. The girl obviously needed someone to talk to in the worst way possible. And Rydia was going to let her give her say.

“I am… your enemy, aren’t I?” the Lunarian peered over at Rydia sadly.

“I don’t know. Do you want to be?”

“I’ve never been anyone’s enemy before,” Joran replied, honesty painting her expression. “I don’t like how it feels. I don’t like how any of this feels. And I wish that none of this had ever happened.”

“Woah, now… slow down,” Rydia gave a soft smile, spreading her hands in front of her for order. “Let’s just pretend for a moment that you’re not my enemy. Okay?”

The girl paused, taking a deep breath. Her green eyes glittered in what seemed to be hopefulness as she gazed on the Caller. Then she nodded.

“Okay. Now, let’s take this one step at a time. Start at the beginning and tell me what’s going on here?” Rydia asked gently.

“From the beginning? Well, that’s a little hard to do. There seems like so much,” Joran’s face was thoughtful as she gathered her thoughts.

“I’ve got time?” the Caller gave a droll grin.

“Okay. Well, you see, there’s this guy I’m in love with… I know you probably are asking what that has to do with anything. But it has everything to do with it all,” Joran gave a sheepish, little girl smile. As if she’d rarely admitted her feelings before.

Something about it made Rydia smile in return.

She has a crush..? Maybe Lunars and humans aren’t so different after all.

Encouraged, the girl continued. As she talked, her smile widened, “He’s really quiet and he keeps to himself a lot… but I know that’s just because he’s awful shy and he’s trying to figure things out in his life. I’ve gotten to know him more than everyone else back home… and they’ve all got him figured out wrong. I mean, he seems distant and scary at first. But, deep down, he’s really sweet and gentle once you can get him to talk to you.”

“So he’s a Lunarian?”

“Well… sorta,” Joran admitted.

“Sorta?”

“He’s a half.”

“Oh?” Rydia couldn’t keep the surprise out of her voice. Carefully, she asked, “What’s his name?”

“I don’t know if you’d know him,” Joran replied. “He’s the eldest son of KluYa… his name is Golbez.”

The Caller suddenly found herself lacking for words as her mind reeled for just a moment.

In my dream… the Dragon said that Golbez had returned to the Blue Planet. So it is true…

“You are familiar with Golbez?” the Lunarian asked, trying to read the expression on Rydia’s face.

“Yes… actually… we’ve met a few times before.”

“Really?” Joran’s face lit up at the thought that the two of them might share a common acquaintance.

“Only briefly, though. We never really had the chance to talk.”

Rydia sucked on her bottom lip. The last thing she wanted to do was try to explain that she had once been Golbez’s enemy, back in during the time that he was a Dark Lord under Zeromus’ control. Especially since Joran seemed so smitten by the mere thought of him – it was obvious that the Lunarian knew very little of what Golbez did during his time serving the darkness.

It’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone speak so fondly of Golbez. But, I suppose, it’s true that I don’t know anything about who he really is. And if he is related to Cecil… well… Cecil can have his own quiet charms about him. Sometimes.

“Well, you should try to talk to him sometime if you… get the chance…” Joran’s face slowly fell as her words faltered. “I wish… I wish I could talk to him again. But now, everything is so messed up. It’s all ruined.”

“What happened?”

The girl sighed longingly, “Golbez started researching and making Incrytan…”

Incrytan?”

“It’s a Crystal of some sort…”

The Key Crystal… like the Dragon said?

“I see,” Rydia pursed her lips. “And what happened to it?”

Joran’s face crumpled. “He started working on it… day and night… obsessively. It was as if nothing else in the world existed anymore. Not even me. And it got to be worrisome. Nothing I did could pull his mind off of creating this Crystal… and it was obviously very powerful.”

“Hrmm…”

“And then, one day, she came to talk to me,” the girl seemed to be trying to figure out the best way to explain it.

“She?”

“Sparrow… that’s what she calls herself. I’m not sure who she is or where she really came from. But she told me that the Crystal was doing very bad things to Golbez’s mind,” Joran shook her head. “She said that he was the son of the Crystal Master KluYa, and was using untrained powers to create something he should not be making. In order to protect Golbez from his own Crystal, she told me I should take it away from him.”

“Steal it?”

The Lunarian blanched. “Yes… to put it bluntly. I stole the Crystal from him. And then…”

Rydia waited as silence filled the gaps in the sentence.

“And then she told me I had to come with her. Because if Golbez found me, he’d take the Crystal back… and everything would have been for nothing. The Crystal would just take control over him again,” her face grew more and more miserable. “She said to truly free him, we had to break the bonds of power it was tied to. And that those bonds were located on your world… the Blue Planet.”

“And, what were those bonds?” Rydia had a good idea where this story was going.

“The elemental Crystals,” Joran replied somberly.

“I see…”

“But I didn’t know how much damage would be done! I didn’t know that she meant for me to actually destroy the Crystals. And I didn’t know the Dragons would be released!?” her words were picking up speed as she became more frantic. “I swear to you, I didn’t know what was going to happen! And then Sparrow said the Daear were going to work with me… and that’s all been a huge mistake!”

“The Daear?”

“The people that live here in the mountain,” Joran nodded. “They are the ones that Pren leads. And they are full of hate and spite towards your race and mine. I think their only goal is to eradicate all human civilization from this world… but I don’t really understand why.”

Rydia rubbed at one cheek thoughtfully.

“I feel it… there’s something terribly wrong with them,” the girl added in a low tone. “Don’t you feel it too?”

“Yes…” the Caller grimaced. There was something about the whole place that had grown more and more tainted as time went on. It was a pressure that hung in the back of her mind. A sense of terrible, twisted wrongness. “I thought I was the only one who saw it.”

“No… I see it too. And it scares me,” Joran took in a ragged breath. “It scares me because if I don’t do what they want me to do… which is destroy the Crystals with Incrytan… I… I don’t know what’s going to happen. And the thing is, I think that destroying the Crystals is what is giving the Daear more power!”

“Are you sure?” Rydia glanced up with a troubled face.

“It’s all really confusing. But I think that the next place they are going to go will b–”

Just then the door behind Joran flung itself open. A presence of deep darkness filled that edge of the room as a teasing voice made them both turn. “Now, now. There you are, Joran-dear. I’ve been looking high and low for you! We don’t have too much more time to wait, you know?”

Rydia had seen this strange, one-eyed man from time to time. And each time she did, her mistrust of him grew in leaps and bounds.

“Kip?” the Lunarian turned with a wide-eyed blink.

“What are you doing down in this musty old place, eh?” he replied, leaning back as his single eye scanned the room slowly. His gaze finally alighted on Rydia, causing her to shiver.

“I was just bringing her some food I fixed,” Joran replied.

“Oh?” his word trilled quietly, speaking volumes. He turned his attention fully on the girl.

Rydia held her breath. It was as if this strange, dark man knew exactly what had been going on between them.

Joran nodded up at him. She looked absolutely unaware. And he was reading her like a book.

“Well, that’s really nice of you. I could use some too, if you have any to spare. The food they have here is absolutely rancid, yes?” Kip’s glance shifted between the two of them. A good-natured smile passed over his lips.

“Especially lately,” the girl replied. By the look on her face, she thought that this man was her friend.

Shiva… is there anyone who is not trying to manipulate her?

As if in response to Rydia’s very thoughts, Kip’s burning green gaze fell upon her again. A slow, twisted grin sent a deep and terrible chill through her body. One dark-gloved hand lifted to rest upon Joran’s shoulder.

“Come now,” he told the girl. “We can’t keep them waiting much longer.”

“Okay…” she nodded in return, then peered back to the Caller. “I’ll fix you another meal later… if you don’t mind?”

Rydia nodded mutely. Keeping her mind silent, she was doing best to mask any more of her thoughts or feelings from the one eyed man. However, Kip seemed aware of those intentions, too. He shot her a final, stomach rending grin as the door closed behind him.

Rydia was left alone once more with her thoughts churning.

Ch7-6 Manipulations

“Kip..! When are we going to set her free?”
“So, you were in there getting all chummy with the prisoner, eh?” Kip tilted his head back with a teasing sort of grin. Though he felt anything but teasing about what was just about to take place.

Joran just doesn’t seem to understand – this is practically a war. You don’t go discussing your plans with the opposite side. Even if they are your prisoner. That’s the kind of thing that comes back to bite you on the bum.

“What do you mean? Is there something wrong with talking to her?” Joran answered, peering up at him in that wide-eyed little girl way she tended to have. Still, there was a part of her that seemed to know that what she was doing could be frowned upon by other members of her side.

If you can consider anyone to be on anyone’s side around here.

Not that Kip didn’t want to see Pren get screwed any way possible. But he wanted it done his way — with Incrytan in his possession and Golbez at his feet in a pool of his own blood.

Since Golbez going to be harder to kill than I thought, I’m going to have to double my efforts to get hold of that trinket of his.

And the last thing he wanted was for information leaked to a prisoner to get in his way.

But, of course, none of this O.M.E.G.A. let show through. He simply turned to the girl and frowned with an act of concern, “There’s nothing wrong with talking to her. But if Pren thinks that the prisoner has found out too much… you know what Pren is going to do to her, don’t you?”

Joran’s face turned absolutely pale. As if she hadn’t even considered the danger she had been putting the Caller in. “Oh… I…”

“Yeah. So you see… you gotta be careful. Understand?”

She nodded slowly with that little lost orphan look that was common for her lately. The girl was drowning in the sea of malice. For within every seemingly harmless and kind act she tried to give to the world, she was discovering the underlying darkness.

That’s just how it goes when corruption starts to set in, kiddo. Even good intentions get twisted. It’s the story of my life.

Suddenly, with a sense of renewed vigor, the girl turned to him. Both of her small white hands clutched the front of his dark coat, gripping it with an intensity that was almost startling. Her voice gushed out in one quick breath, as if she was scared to speak and forcing the sounds, “Kip..! When are we going to set her free?”

“Huh?” was his only reaction. It wasn’t a usual one. But this time, he hadn’t seen this outburst coming at all. “Set her free?”

“This place is awful, Kip!” Joran exclaimed with a sharp plead. “I’ve felt it… and I know you can feel the way it’s been… changing, too. Just like the Daear have been. Something is terribly wrong… we just can’t leave Rydia here to suffer!”

Rydia, hrm? So she managed to get the Caller’s name.

Kip pursed his lips, staring down into the girl’s face. It was the look of a child coming to someone that they trusted with their deepest concerns. He knew right away that he had to be very careful about handling this.

“You know what? I agree with you,” O.M.E.G.A. nodded slowly. This could play her closer to his goal if he moved things in the right way. “This is a rotten place for anyone to be cooped up in.”

“Then you think that she should be set free, too?”

“Of course I do. Holding hostages for no real reason is bad practice. But the main thing here is – the human is Pren’s prisoner, yes?” Kip fixed his single eye on her sharply, studying her response.

It came, just as he hoped. A mingling of disgust and dislike for Pren. “Yes… Because we got into a fight with Rydia when we went to retrieve one of the Crystals. But, Rydia was only trying to protect the people she cares about. The same as I want to.”

“I see,” O.M.E.G.A. leaned back, taping his metal plate with one finger. “So you think that Pren is holding her here just out of spite?”

“Maybe. I don’t know,” Joran frowned.

“Well, there’s not a lot I can do if Rydia is held here by Pren’s command. If it were up to me, I’d gladly let her go,” he sighed softly. “I hate seeing the human locked up here a much as you do, I assure you.”

“I know…” And that’s when the words came, “I really don’t like Pren very much. I wish there was some way that we could do things without her.”

“Oh, really?” O.M.E.G.A. peered over, trying not to seem too eager. It took everything in him not to show the sudden thrill of delight that rushed through him at that very moment. “In what way?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking. And you know, Pren is the one that wants me to go around destroying the Crystals like this,” the girl spread her hands. “She keeps saying that there’s no way to undo what’s already been done with them. She says that the energies of the Blue Planet are now out of balance because two of the four Crystals are gone… and that it won’t be fixed until they’re all destroyed.”

“Hrm… yes…” Kip scratched behind one ear, letting the girl talk.

“But, at the same time, as we’ve destroyed the Crystals, something’s been happening to the Daear. I think they’re gaining power because of it,” Joran gave a serious look. For all her girl-ishness, the last statement held a lot of weight. Even to Kip’s mind.

“You know what?” O.M.E.G.A. mused for a moment, slowly leaning forward. “I think you’re on to something there. Things have been feeling out of sorts here. And it does seem in correlation to the weakening influence of the Crystals on this world as they’ve been destroyed.”

“The only reason Pren wants to work with me is so that I’ll destroy the Crystals for her!” the girl threw it all out on the table in a rush of terrible realization. “As much as she talks about protecting the Blue Planet, she never cared about preserving life on this world… at least, not human life! And once the Crystals are completely destroyed – then what?”

“Then… I would say that you and I are expendable at that point as well. Pren has no love for Lunars either,” he allowed his words to drop heavily on her shoulders.

“Pren will… kill us?”

“Chances are very likely. We’d only be in the way at that point.”

Joran’s face grew wan as she struggled to find words to match the thoughts that flickered through her mind.

Very good. Very, very good… you’re figuring it out. Bit by bit.

“What should we do, Kip!?” alarm rang through ever ounce of her voice. She was shaking all over, green eyes pleading up at him for an answer.

And really… I couldn’t have asked for a better set up than this.

“Now, now… Joran,” O.M.E.G.A. said softly, putting a hint of power into her name. He placed one hand gently down on her quivering shoulder, sending waves of calming sensation through her body. “Panicking is not a good choice of action at this point. We’ve got to think this through, okay?”

The girl nodded and peered up at him. “Then… you’ll help me?”

Kip spread his hands wide, his grin even wider. “What? You think I’d leave you to get through this all by yourself? I told you before, I’m only sticking around because of you. Not because of Pren. Not because of the Daear – I could really care less about what they have to say in this matter.”

“And what about what they’re doing to the humans?” she asked quickly. As if trying to see into his intentions, ever so shallowly.

“I think it’s absolutely disgusting and uncalled for. And I agree… this madness needs to come to a stop,” Kip replied, somewhat honestly. Though he wasn’t losing sleep over the destruction and killing that had been done in Troia, he certainly wouldn’t have chosen such an outcome if it had been his call to make.

Joran breathed a soft sigh of relief. Happy that someone was agreeing with her.

He decided to put the pressure on, if only a little. “You know… there are two more major human cities that hold the final Crystals. The destruction is far from over with.”

“Yes… I know,” she looked down at her feet with a somber face. At the least, she seemed to be getting her emotions under control now.

“But also, Pren has done something that may not be so wise,” Kip waggled a finger at her nose to make her look up.

Joran blinked at him. “What’s that?”

“Pren’s gotten a bit overconfident. She’s divided her troops up. And I have a feeling that’s going to be part of her undoing here,” O.M.E.G.A. leaned back with a casual air.

“Do you really think so?”

“Yeah. The whole idea behind her meeting with Cecil’s group in Troia was to lay a trap for him. Very obvious,” he flourished a hand. “She doesn’t want them to cause problems when she goes to destroy the next Crystal in Fabul. She sent out part of her troops to attack Baron as a way to distract Cecil and Golbez.”

“So that they’d go back to Baron… instead of going to Fabul?” Joran asked slowly with a frown.

“Exactly,” Kip pointed with a sharp smirk. “But the thing that Pren didn’t count on is the fact that if her motives are obvious to you… and they’re obvious to me… chances are, they’re quite obvious to the Paladin, too.”

“Then, you don’t think Cecil is going to fall for her trick?”

“I don’t know,” he answered grimly.

I hope not. Any day to face down Golbez in battle is a happy day for me… and the best chance I’ve got is to meet him again in Fabul. Now that I know some of his tricks, he won’t get off as easily this time.

Joran’s face was heavy with thought.

“Well, the point is… Pren’s divided up her forces. That may have been a foolish move. We have yet to see her plans in action,” O.M.E.G.A. summed up quickly. “But you can bet, she’s got plans for us that she’s not cuing us into yet.”

The girl nodded somberly. She had fallen into silence, while her mind churned in circles of doubt and confusion. He decided to give her another little nudge.

“I know it’s a lot to think about… I’m sorry that these rough things are stuck on your shoulders. But I thought you needed to know what I sense is going on,” Kip offered her a concerned expression.

And she took it. “Thank you, Kip… I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here.”

He gave a slow, friendly smile. “Just keep in mind… I told you before that I’d help you out if you ever decided to ditch the Daear. The offer still stands. You don’t have to go this alone.”

Joran drew in a deep breath and peered up at him. Her eyes were awash with the struggles that tore her from within. She wasn’t ready to make the choice just yet. So he backed off.

“I need to think about all this for a little bit,” she told him in a quiet voice.

“Alright… I understand,” O.M.E.G.A. nodded, sticking his hands in his pockets. “Just don’t spend too long. Pren is going to expect a raid on Fabul once all her troops get moving in Baron.”

“That doesn’t give much time at all…” Joran sighed, twisting the end of her braid between her fingers.

“No. It certainly doesn’t,” he agreed. Then he sighed. “That’s just how things seem to go in life. One thing to another… it feels never ending.”

“Does it?” the girl asked him out of the blue.

“Does it what?” Kip peered over at her.

“Ever end?”

“Sure it does. Don’t you worry about that,” his voice was soft. But the words were like acid to him between his lips.

It just never ends the way you hope it will.

“I’m glad.” Joran was smiling, unaware. She had already turned with a quick glance down the shrouded hallway. The conversation was at its end. She would need lots of time to mull it all over.

“You need me to walk you to your room?” Kip found himself surprised by the genuine consideration in his offer.

“No. I’m okay. It’s just around the corner. Thank you,” Joran turned back to look at him.

Her face was warm as she reached out and grasped his hand, giving it a thankful squeeze. Then Joran made her way off down the hall to her room, leaving the O.M.E.G.A. alone in the lingering darkness.

Ch7-7 Breakfast in Baron

The kit didn’t seem in the slightest bit offended by her lack of knowledge.
A pair of fuzzy, striped ears poked up at the far end of Rosa’s small breakfast table. The young Queen peered at them, patiently waiting. She was all too familiar with this happenstance. It had almost become a part of her morning ritual.

After a moment of what Rosa always considered to be stalking around, there was a cheerful yowlp as the young Hummingway kit, Nodd, leapt up into the empty chair on the other side of the table. “Gooood morning, Yer Majesty! How are you today!?”

Rosa smiled her normal, gentle smile. “I’m doing quite well today, thank you. And you, Nodd?”

“I’m fine!” the kit was already helping himself to some of the buttered muffins that were set out for just that reason. Nodd seemed to have a delight in all the different kinds of foods of the Blue Planet. But he was especially fond of the blueberry muffins that were baked in the Baronian kitchens for Rosa every morning.

There were more than enough muffins to share. Though usually, her table was also home to the three young Mysidian Mages that had been ordered to watch over Nodd.

Palom, Alexander and Newton are late today. They’re such lazy-heads!

Though they were quite a rabble, always bickering and talking just a little bit too loud, the young Queen didn’t mind sharing her breakfast hours. If anything, the company helped Rosa not think about the fact that she had to eat her meals alone. Now that Cecil was gone. And it took her mind off the worries she had, if only for a little while.

“Any news for me, Queen Rosa?” Nodd asked, his little ears perking forward. He brushed the crumbs away from his mouth on his robe sleeve and watched her with expectant hope.

“I’m sorry, Nodd. There’s been nothing yet,” she told him, picking up a muffin of her own.

“Oh… okay…” the kit sighed. But he didn’t let it damper his spirits too long before his attention was fixed back on the food in one hand.

Every morning the kit asked the same question. And every morning, Rosa had the same answer. They had found no news or trace of Namingway’s whereabouts. Though there had been much more pressing issues to maintain, Rosa had taken pity on the kit’s plight to search for Namingway, and had ordered that her men keep an eye out for any sign of him. But so far, as she had expected, the elusive kat had not been found.

Because they were strangely alone that morning, Rosa found herself prompted to start up conversation with the kit. With a hint of curiosity she began, “Is Namingway a relation of yours?”

Nodd stopped in mid-chew and peered at her. “I dunno. Hard to say until I meet him. But he is one of my kind.”

“Yes… I only met him a few times on my travels, but he certainly did look a lot like you,” Rosa smiled.

“But he was older, right?”

“Oh yes. He seemed all grown up,” she nodded. “Though, I don’t know much about the Hummingways, so I’m not really a good judge for this sort of thing.”

The kit didn’t seem in the slightest bit offended by her lack of knowledge. If anything, he gave her a wide cattish grin.

“Is that why you want to find Namingway?” Rosa asked, twisting a strand of hair around one finger as she leaned forward. “To see if he is part of your family?”

“Sorta…” Nodd replied, the grin fading. “Actually… I want to find him because he might be the last living Hummingway anywhere. Other than me.”

The Queen paused and blinked. This was something she hadn’t heard before. “Oh? Why.. what happened to the others?”

“I’m not sure,” the kit told her, his tone suddenly serious. “After the Red Moon left the orbit of the Blue Planet, something happened to us. All I know is when I woke up, I was with the Lunars… and all the others were missing.”

“I’m really sorry to hear that…” Rosa told the kit.

“Yeah. I’m sorry , too.”

Rosa had always thought the Hummingways to be a strange bunch. No one knew very much about them other than they were a race of cat-like humanoids that made their home in one of the caves on the surface of the Red Moon.

I only met them just that once… they seemed polite enough. If a little odd.

No one knew if they had existed upon the Moon before the Lunarians chose to make it their place of slumber. No one knew if the Hummingways had actually been a race that coexisted on Runne and escaped the destruction of that planet, much as the Lunars did.

And now, from what Nodd says, with the passing of the Red Moon from the orbit of the Blue Planet, the entire race has totally vanished?

Not much was known about the one called Namingway. He seemed to bear the same manners and appearance as the felines of the Red Moon. However, he was a well known vagabond that traveled from kingdom to kingdom over the Blue Planet. Though he wasn’t notorious for being a troublemaker of any sort, his cat like features helped to mark him in the memories of those who had come across him. Namingway always had a strange way of popping up places when one least expected it.

Putting the pieces together only made Rosa puzzle all the more. But at least now, she understood why Nodd was so intent on finding Namingway.

I’ll be sure to ask the guards to double their effort to keep an eye out for him. I really hope Nodd will find Namingway one day.

Not wanting to leave the conversation off on a somber note, Rosa peered around and asked. “So where are the other boys? Shouldn’t Alexander and Newton be coming soon? Or did they decide to sleep in?”

“Oh, no Your Majesty,” Nodd said around a mouthful of muffin. “They never went to sleep last night.”

“What do you mean?”

“I saw them leave late yesterday afternoon. I guess they never came back last night.”

“Oh, really?” Rosa wrinkled her brow. “What about Palom?”

“I haven’t seen Palom either,” Nodd told her with a twitch of his tail.

“That’s odd…” she mused to herself. “You checked their rooms and everything?”

“Of course! I couldn’t find them anywhere, so I figured I’d come get some muffins anyhow. I hope that’s alright?” the kit peered at her.

“Certainly,” Rosa told him. But her mind was far away, thoughts lingering in concern.

I wonder what’s going on? At least they could have sent word if they were going to stay outside of the castle last night. Newton is a back-talk… but he’s not been one to shirk his duty. And neither is Alexander, by far.

A light knock at the door drew Rosa’s attention away from her concerned thoughts. Half expecting to see the three wayward young Mages parade into the room, Rosa gave a soft call, “Yes? Come in?”

It wasn’t one of the boys at all. Rather, the flushed face of Calleen poked through the widening door crack. Once a good friend and classmate of Rosa’s when she had been a student of the White Arts, Calleen was now one of the supervisors that presided over the White Mage branch of the Baronian Academy. She was also the one major connection of direct information that Rosa had with the department, now that she was the Queen.

“I hope I’m not interrupting, Your Majesty?” Calleen gave a questioning bow, then remained standing and awaiting her answer.

“No, of course not. Please come in,” Rosa answered with a genuine smile. “Would you like a muffin?”

“No, but thank you, Your Majesty. I have a few errands to run this morning. But I wanted to give you the weekly outlook,” the White Mage answered, folding her hands properly.

Weekly Outlook? Is it Wednesday already? How the week goes by so fast anymore…

“Please, by all means, don’t hold yourself up here any longer than you need to,” Rosa replied, putting her muffin back on the plate to listen.

“Well, it seems that a majority of the Mysidian refugees who suffered wounds during the destruction of the Water Crystal are nearly at full recovery… or very close to being,” Calleen nodded with a pleased look. “There are a few cases of more serious injuries that are harder to heal, of course. But, for the most part, I would report that nine out of ten citizens of Mysidia are on track to full recovery within the next few days.

“Amazing,” the Queen smiled, feeling somewhat heartened. “Especially if you consider the nature of their wounds to begin with.”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Amazing is quite the word for it,” the White Mage agreed. Then a sly smile crossed her face. “We have been concealing the exact identity of the item that we are using to heal the Crystal-inflicted wounds from the masses. Still, there are some Mages in our branch that have to wonder at the healing power of King Cecil’s holy… undergarments.”

“Boxer shorts!” Nodd interjected with a mouthful of muffin. So far, the kit seemed to be zoning out the boring adult talk. But there was no doubt his ears were tuned for any talk of the mischief-making sort. And there were very few that could not laugh a little about the idea of Cecil’s Holy Boxers.

“Now, Nodd…” Rosa gave them both an amused glance.

“Well… The word is that it must be a testament to the great Paladin King’s purity that his… um… boxer shorts… can heal with a touch,” there was a twinkle of mirth in Calleen’s eyes.

Rosa couldn’t help but give a girlish giggle of her own. “Oh, they do, do they?”

“Yes, and it’s priceless, Your Majesty.”

“I bet it is,” the young Queen nodded with a wide grin.

“Not King Cecil,” Nodd added with a murmur. “It’s Golbez.”

Silence fell over the room as Calleen’s face grew uneasy. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

“It was Golbez’s spell that heals. Not King Cecil. It just happened to be King Cecil’s shorts, that’s all,” the kit corrected her with a frown.

“Oh… I.. didn’t know that,” the White Mage’s expression was somewhat troubled. Then she looked to Rosa, as if to gather an answer.

“It’s true,” the young Queen replied, wincing a little at Nodd’s words. And wishing more than anything else that this topic hadn’t come up.

Maybe it’s wrong to have not said so. But we thought it was best if people thought whatever they wanted about the healing… Knowing they probably wouldn’t be very comfortable thinking it was Golbez’s power that was being used on them.

“Really..?” Calleen seemed to be mulling this over. “I didn’t know that Lord Golbez could cast healing magic.”

There was just too much confusion going on… what with the Mages coming in from Mysidia. And cleaning up after the Dragon’s attack on Baron. The last thing we needed was for there to be was a protest against the use of Golbez’s magic… it was the only healing spell we knew could work.

“He can,” Rosa nodded, trying to make the situation sound less troubling that it really was. “It’s tough on him, though.”

“Yet, he could produce such a powerful spell to undo the wounds that one of the Elemental Crystals cast?”

“He knows Crystals,” Nodd answered firmly. “He builds them. So he would know how to undo the things that the power of a Crystal has done.”

“Builds… Crystals…” the White Mage’s mouth was now nearly agape.

“Well… ah… that’s what we’ve heard, anyhow,” the young Queen interrupted, trying to get the conversation back in control. “But it’s all really hard to say. The most important thing is that the people are healed.”

These are not at all the type of rumors I want spreading around here about Golbez. It’s hard enough trying to keep people clam about the fact that he’s been welcomed into Baron by Cecil. And it’s just as hard on Cecil to worry about what people think about him for doing it.

“Yes… of course, Your Majesty,” Calleen answered, still looking a bit concerned.

“Is there anything else that you were going to report to me?” Rosa asked in effort to hurry along the visit. She didn’t want Nodd to spill any more unneeded information.

“Let me think…” the White Mage answered, tapping her chin for a moment. “No.. that’s really about it, I think…”

Rosa nodded in relief.

“Oh! Oh yeah! There was one other thing,” Calleen’s head jerked up. “Nothing serious, mind you. But I just wanted to mention that it seems like we’ve got a nasty case of a summer cold going around town. We’ve got a lot of people complaining of mild fever… you know, the norm.”

“It’s that time of year,” the young Queen sighed.

“Well, make sure you don’t go getting yourself sick, Your Majesty,” she smile teasingly. “It just wouldn’t do.”

“You too, Calleen,” Rosa smiled too, hoping everything was okay.

“Alright, well, I’d best get to my rounds, then. I hope you both have a pleasant morning,” the White Mage gave a low bow.

“Good bye, nice lady!” Nodd waved cheerfully.

Calleen gave another smile before opening the door to leave. She paused a moment, as if stopping in mid step. The White Mage looked over to the right, addressing someone in the hallway that Rosa could not see, “Oh, Sir Highwind. You startled me! Do be more careful.”

A deep, familiar voice murmured an apology. Then, as the White Mage made her way down the hall, Kain poked his head through the crack in the door. “Rosa?”

Busy morning…

The Queen peered up at the Dragoon, resuming her breakfast now that the White Mage had left. “Hello, Kain. Come in?”

He fidgeted a little, looking a bit uncomfortable about entering her chambers when there was no trace of Cecil in the castle. But it didn’t bother Rosa in the least. And she let it show on her face.

“Thank you…” The way his voice lingered in concern spoke volumes where the silence did not tread. There was something on his mind. Something that must have been serious. It reflected in the depths of his icy eyes.

“Is there something wrong, Kain?” she inquired.

“I’m not sure, Rosa,” he replied. “I don’t want to raise a false alarm but there’s something I think you should know about.”

“False alarm?” Rosa straightened in her chair. She knew Kain well enough to realize that when he said things like that, it was no little matter. “Please… continue?”

“I don’t have a lot of details. But I have confirmed the reports that have been brought to me just today…” he was hesitating.

“Which are?”

“I have strong reason to believe that there is an army of some sort amassing in the Baronian forest just a few days west of here,” Kain told her in a grim tone. “They seem to be gathering arms to march for the city.”

Rosa dropped her muffin with a doughy thunk.