Ch9-1 The Offer

Breathing heavily, the tingle of unearthly magic rushed through Kip’s body, filling him with a renewed strength and hunger.
The inverted mountain was sinking. The Anti-Zot, as Kip liked to call it, was dragging through the clouds, drifting down towards the distant mass of lands below. The fortress had once been the home to the Daear. But now that they had been defeated and their powers broken, there was not enough life force left to keep the thing afloat.

If you call this taint a life force at all.

How he had ended up there was all very muddled. Seeing the tide of battle had turned for the worst, instinct drove him to retreat from the Crystal room in Fabul. The Daear troops were a mess. Word of Pren’s demise ran rampant as the humans began to carve out chunks in their army. As far as Kip knew, none of the Daear had escaped – at least, he hadn’t seen any signs of life since he had come there.

Just as well. Pren got what she deserved. As did all of the rest of them. I hope they all rot in the Void…

The remaining rift back to the mountain fortress had been very weak. But it had been the only escape that Kip could find outside of the gates of Fabul.

I hate this place. I’m glad it’s going down.

The fortress reeked of decay. Things worse than decay. Of a world hollowed out, guts strewn around, by its own keepers. But that was nothing new to him. Nothing he had never seen before. In fact, it’s all he had ever seen in his lifetime. And no amount of struggling against it ever saved anyone.

Not ShiKon. Not NaTu. Not even Master SoYa.

A pang of dark loneliness crept over O.M.E.G.A. there in the blighted heart of the dying mountain. Afterall, there wasn’t anything left for him in the cold world.

I couldn’t find them. I couldn’t save them.

Images pulsed through his mind.

They died while I ran, like a coward, from the planet’s explosion.

Brilliant red yellow and white flowering through the starry sky outside of his ship’s window.

The terrible memory drove his hands upwards, fingers clutching at his head. Digging into his skull. The pain on the outside was so much easier to deal with.

And even in his singular, last task, he had failed.

I lost the Crystal. I lost Joran’s trust. I could not defeat Golbez…

A shudder rumbled through the structure around him, bits and pieces raining down from above. But O.M.E.G.A.’s anguish did not care. There were only the rending, tearing feelings inside of his mind. Of what he once was and what he had become.

I have failed.

And now he would meet his end, there within the sinking mountain. Nothing but a crumbling person who should have never been. Nothing more than a prototype… the O.M.E.G.A. project.

Broken…

A fallback plan for if the Dark Lord ever turned against Zeromus.

Fractured…

But even by the time that did happen, O.M.E.G.A. had long been forgotten. Left to spend eternity in the sleeping pod in the bowels of Zot. To die when the pod could no longer function.

Defective…

Kip slumped against the oozing face of the wall, a shadow upon shadow. Memories ever more intense until the ghosts of the past were almost a reality before his single blurry-visioned eye. The faces of those he loved, hovering just out of his reach, sifting through a cold silver mist that now seemed to fill the halls of the fortress. Though it was too much to ask for, Kip knew, perhaps the only way he could go to join them was through his demise.

-KiNaTu…- A voice. It came from every direction at once, as if it was part of the mist. It bled into his mind, melting away the lingering shadows with a sense of wonderment.

That name… how…?

The mists billowed into the room, an eerie cloud of unanswering silence. Kip lifted his head, the single eye burning into the shifting shapes, trying to make out the source. Something about it felt strangely familiar… as if he should recognize the presence that was forming there within the fortress. Something about it also made every hair on the back of his neck stand on end.

“Who are you?” he asked warily.

-One that has been watching,- came the reply.

Kip ground his teeth. If there was anything he didn’t like, it was being observed without his knowledge. “What do you want from me?”

-Nothing.-

“Nothing?” the O.M.E.G.A. echoed. “I find that hard to believe after you just told me that you were watching me.”

-It is not what I want from you… it is what I can offer you, instead.-

“And that is?” he found himself leaning forward in spite of himself. Afterall, he had nothing to lose. So, even if he was being played by the strange voice in the dying fortress, there was no harm to be done.

-Your enemy and my rival are one in the same,- came the simple answer. Forthright. Without any embellishment.

Maybe that’s why Kip found himself believing the voice. Or maybe… it was just that he didn’t want to lose. To be a failure. To give up the fight so early on.

“You’re talking about Golbez?” O.M.E.G.A. asked, pushing himself up on his palms with a frown.

-And his brother. Both.-

“The Paladin King?” an eyebrow arched. This was getting interesting. And perhaps dangerous. Anything that had its sights set out to destroy a Paladin was probably not good news. But then again, neither was O.M.E.G.A.

-Correct.-

Kip thought for a long moment, feeling the shifting of the fortress underneath him. He watched as streams of loose stone and ooze melted down the face of the further wall. The sickly green mingled with the silver mists, seeming drawn into it. The mists became more intent. As if fed by the death around it.

“How do you plan on fighting them?” O.M.E.G.A. finally asked.

-I will grant you the ability that you need to continue your battle.-

“I see,” he pursed his lips. “There’s not a lot we can do unless we can get Incrytan away from Golbez. With his Key Crystal in hand, he’s far more dangerous than before.”

-Perhaps. And then, perhaps there are far more dangers that he is not accounting for yet,- came the ambiguous reply.

“Just what sort of game are you playing?” Kip asked shrewdly templing his fingers.

-I assure you, this is no game.-

“Then why don’t you show yourself?”

-If I could manifest, then I would not have to seek outside assistance to meet my goals.-

Kip frowned. Things were getting more complicated and less rational. He didn’t like the feeling of the offer… there were too many things left unsaid. Too many opportunities for his own undoing. But the shivering of the structure under his feet left him very little time to make up his mind. And the voice seemed to know this.

-Do you wish to impart your vengeance? Or will this be the place of your demise?-

“Alright,” O.M.E.G.A. finally answered. “Let me see what you got. If you can get me out of here before this place rots into nothing, then we can talk shop.”

-That will not be a problem,- came the distant reply.

All at once, the shifting mists began to take on a softer, more luminous look. The structure blurred and wavered, rippling in streams of distorted light. Kip suddenly knew that his previous theory about how the mists might be drawing energy from the fortress was probably closer to the truth than he could have guessed.

It was as if a pathway to another existence had unfolded around him. Wherever the mist rose, the world was not the world that Kip knew. It was darker. Indistinct. Alarmingly erratic. Every sane thread left within him – if there were any – warned him against taking the first motion towards the place.

What’s the alternate choice, afterall. Either way I go, I could end up just as dead.

With grated teeth, Kip forced his feet to move. Insanity had won out. And the unending, dull thrumming in the back of his head. The inevitable welling of fervor to drive forward. To destroy that which O.M.E.G.A. was created to destroy.

The strange world peeled back away from him. As if it was observing and not quite sure that O.M.E.G.A. belonged there. Or anywhere. But this particular place seemed to have an awareness of its own. He could feel them. Thousands upon thousands of sentient points drifting through the mists that hovered just on the edge of his sight.

So much emotion… so much chaos.

Shivers ran up and down the length of his body despite the fact there was neither heat nor cold in the air around him. In fact, Kip wasn’t even sure if there was air at all. How he was breathing, he didn’t want to ponder too much. The world was closing in behind him, blocking out the last vision of the dying Daear mountain.

What is this place?

-You have come to the Mists. The place between the waking and the dead. Here, They who left life incomplete… They who chose to remain without passing… and the souls of Those in desperate wanting all wander.-

Verbal words seem too hard to form there in the Mists. Maybe it was the ethereal nature of the place. Or maybe it was just from the shock of realization. But the voice seemed to have little problem in plucking the thoughts out of his head.

Then… the emotions I’m feeling… are from those who are dead?

-To put it simply.-

Kip felt his pulse quicken. He had, afterall, chosen to listen to the deal in order to escape death. Not step right into it.

-Do not worry. You will not be harmed here. They have no physical power over you.-

Why did you bring me here?

The voice answered simply, -This is my domain… and my prison.-

Are you dead..?

It wasn’t until after the question came out that he realized it was pretty insensitive. And it probably wasn’t a good idea to tee off whatever power had just pulled him into the land of the unliving.

But the voice did not seem angry at all. It answered very patiently.

-No. I am disconnected.-

Kip took a moment to puzzle that statement. But he couldn’t get anything out of it, try as he might.

Before he could find the thoughts to ask for clarification, he realized that the Mists were doing something. Pulling together. Taking a form. And behind the growing shape were points of light that he came to realize were glittering eyes. Kip could make out nothing more of them than that.

And he didn’t have to… it was quite enough for him to realize he was officially in over his head.

The mists continued to draw together in the form of a man – a very tall and slender-built man. Though his features were blurry and unfocused, Kip could make out the long streams of hair, the sharp tilt of his face… and the cold grip of his silver-eyed gaze. Behind him, the mists unfurled… at first without shape. But then, as the swaths of white lifted far above the figure’s head, Kip could clearly see the outline of huge feathered wings.

I will hold my end of the bargain.-

A chilling sense of dread held Kip’s soul. Something about this figure, this silver-eyed winged man, seemed terribly, terribly wrong. But as a single hand lifted and the power from the mist began to draw around O.M.E.G.A., Kip was lost in the morbid delight… the feeling of growing strength in his own body, as his plates began to absorb the power that was offered.

– I will grant you a power far more than mere mind magery… I will grant you the power to turn souls.-

A low hiss escaped O.M.E.G.A.’s lips. The burning green of his eye was almost the only point of color in all of the Mists. Breathing heavily, the tingle of unearthly magic rushed through Kip’s body, filling him with a renewed strength and hunger. The feeling was exhilarating… frighteningly so.

– And with this power, you can take from your enemy what is most dear to him… However.-

With that last word, the figure lowered his hand.

-I require two things of you in return.-

Two things… such as?

The voice paused for a moment. When it spoke again, the condition was nothing that O.M.E.G.A. couldn’t have guessed at.

-The remaining Crystals must be destroyed.-

A slow smirk crept over O.M.E.G.A.’s face.

That’s all? There is only one set left.

Silence fell over the mists. The kind of silence that told Kip instantly that he was mistaken.

-I require that the corresponding Crystals of the Red Moon also be destroyed.-

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Ch9-2 Crossroads and Choices

Edge crossed his arms. “How many people have to die? How many cities have to be leveled? How many wars have to rage? What does it take before someone is held accountable for their actions?”
“How is he?” Cecil asked, looking up as the White Mage entered the room.

“He’s resting better now,” Porom answered, brushing the hem of her robe off with one hand. “Master Golbez has amazing resilience. I think with a little sleep, he’ll be back up on his feet in a short time.”

“I’m glad…” the Paladin answered. He outwardly relaxed with the knowledge that his brother would be okay.

The girl gave a soft smile. She looked pleased at his show of concern… which was assuredly real.

Golbez may be a Master Wizard… and he may be tough. But he was up against a lot in the Crystal Room.

With the destruction of the Crystal of Wind right there in the same chamber, it was a wonder any of them made it through. But somehow they had managed to contain the damage and the Elemental Dragon’s attack to a small area of the Fabulian fortress.

I guess things could have been a lot worse. Though Yang’s throne room is going to need some work now.

Always one to look on the bright side, the Fabulian King simply waved the matter away as his wife had stated frankly that the throne room needed redecoration anyhow. All in all, the victory was somewhat bittersweet. A lot of men had been lost in fighting the Daear, but once the tide of battle had turned, they had been able to destroy most, if not all, of the invading forces. They had lost another Elemental Crystal, but caught the Crystal thief and reclaimed Incrytan.

I still don’t know how we did all that.

The Crystal thief was nothing more than a little girl. At least, that was the appearance she gave. But since she was a Lunar, Cecil knew that looks could be deceiving.

It’s the first time I’ve seen another Lunar… outside of Uncle Fu.

The situation was a tricky one. As much as Cecil didn’t like to imprison someone before knowing the full story, there wasn’t really much else that they could do in this case. The girl only spoke in the Lunar language with a very few, random words in Common that anyone could understand. That meant that Golbez was the only one in the city that could speak to her and find out what the story really was.

And Golbez has been under intensive care… and will be until we’re sure he will recover well enough from the strains of the last battle.

So, for now, the Lunar girl had been mageloked and placed in holding until they could figure out what was the best that could be done with her.

Afterall… a lot of people have died because of the destruction that the Crystals have created. And if she was really the one that took Golbez’s Crystal and caused all of this… then the question remains… what to do about it.

But Cecil tried not to think about that too much. There were too many other things on his mind.

“Yo, Cecil!” came the shout from across the hall. A shout that could only belong to one person.

The Paladin’s head swiveled around as Edge strode into the room, waving a rolled up scroll excitedly. The Ninja spent no time in making his way over, quickly shoving the parchment into Cecil’s hands.

“An Airship just arrived – I’m pretty sure it’s one of the Red Wings,” Edge informed him quickly.

“The Red Wings? From Baron?” Cecil was already working to open the seal on the scroll. The Paladin could feel his heartbeat rising, thrumming in the back of his head as he anxiously unrolled the paper.

Rosa… I hope everything is okay. I know you were under attack. I know I should have gone back home to support the battle efforts. I’m not sure what I’ll do if something has happened to Baron.

“What does it say? What does it say?” Edge was crowding over his left shoulder like an overgrown child.

“I’m trying to find out,” the Paladin informed him calmly. “Can I read it?”

“I thought that was the point?” the Ninja replied crisply, continuing to invade on personal space.

Porom rolled her eyes with a little frown. If she was anxious at all to find out the wellbeing of her brother, she was good at keeping it hidden.

Finally Cecil held the scroll out and between Edge’s random interruptions, managed to skim it enough to get an idea of what it was about. His expression must have changed, because both of his companions were leaning forward with an intense look of interest.

“Cecil,” Porom finally broke, “What does it say?”

“Baron was attacked by the Daear army,” the Paladin began to summarize, skimming the letter yet again.

“Oh no…”

“But the attacking forces were successfully fended off. Baron won the battle with surprisingly little casualties. And just like here, the Daear were completely obliterated… by… something,” Cecil squinted at the paper.

“Something?” Edge asked.

“Yeah. Rosa doesn’t seem to know exactly what it was… and she can’t get a confirmation from any of the men either. They just know that something intervened… and it seemed like a bright, white light.”

“Strange,” Porom tapped her chin.

“So they won?” the Ninja King echoed.

“Yeah, they did?” Cecil’s smile was deeply relieved. Then he turned towards Edge with upraised eyebrows, “And it seems as if they’ve recovered Rydia as well.”

“They what?” Edge’s voice lifted an octave as his whole body drew upright, rigid. “They found Rydia? Is she alright?”

“I’m assuming so. Rosa didn’t say that she was hurt. So, I guess everything must be fine,” the Paladin replied.

“Well… then what are we waiting for!”

“What are you talking about?” Cecil frowned.

“Fabul is secure. We’ve taken back Incrytan. We’ve caught the Crystal thief. Baron won the battle. And Rydia is back in Baron,” Edge began to tick off things on his fingers. “Why are we hanging around here. There’s one of your ships outside! Let’s go?”

“Edge…” Porom intoned seriously. “Master Golbez is in no condition to be moving just yet.”

“Not to mention we don’t really know what we’re going to do with the Crystal thief yet,” Cecil added.

“What’s to think about?” the Ninja snuffed. “She stole. She killed. She has to pay the price.”

“Is that the kind of justice you rule your kingdom with?” the Paladin grumbled.

“It’s fair? You do something wrong, you face the consequences,” Edge crossed his arms. “How many people have to die? How many cities have to be leveled? How many wars have to rage? What does it take before someone is held accountable for their actions?”

Cecil shot the Eblanian a warning look. There was no doubt he was making references to Golbez.

“Well, in this case, we don’t know the whole story yet,” the Paladin murmured. “And until we do, I don’t think it’s fair to sentence anyone to punishment.”

“Oh, and ironically, the only person that can speak the thief’s language is Golbez?” Edge crossed his arms and leaned back in a motion of discontent.

“Edge…”

“Sure is funny, don’t you think? Maybe it’s all a cover up?”

“Edge.”

The Ninja waggled his finger, “Maybe she’s working for Golbez and all of this was jus–”

“Edge!” Cecil gritted his teeth with a sharp tone. “Don’t even suggest that! I won’t for a single moment believe that my brother set any of this up! He has sacrificed just as much as we have to see that this situation came to an end.”

Finally, the Eblanian King closed his mouth. But he shook his head showing his disagreement.

“If you want to fly back to Baron with the ship, be my guest,” the Paladin’s tone was exasperated and firm. “I won’t keep you from it.”

“What about you?” came the solemn question.

“I’m not leaving here until I know my brother can leave with me,” Cecil replied. “And until I know that the girl we threw in the dungeon will get a fair chance to tell her story. No matter her origins. No matter the situation. She has a right to be heard.”

Edge pursed his lips, grey eyes watching his companion for a long time. He wrinkled his nose a few times and paced the hall a bit. But when he finally turned back around, he gave a long sigh, “Fine. I’ll stick around for a little while longer.”

“Are you sure?” the Paladin asked. He knew more likely than not, Edge would really want to see Rydia. Just as much as he wanted to see Rosa.

“Yeah. I’m here for the long haul, Cecil. Don’t you ever forget that.”

Cecil peered over at him. As much as the Eblanian could be a real annoyance…. Sometimes… just sometimes… Edge could really be a good friend, too.

Ch9-3 Reunion

“Joran…” Ben said for a third time, schooling as much calmness as he could into his voice.
This is the place where they’re keeping Joran. I still can’t believe they locked her up. But I guess… what else could they do?

The walls of the Fabulian dungeon still groaned with the echoes of remembered battle, stretching tall over Ben’s head. This area of the fortress had been hit by the Crystal’s rage fairly hard and the structure complained of the fact. The Master Wizard strode down the stairs with one determination — he would be bringing Joran back up with him. It was just the question of in what way he would do it.

Either she is a traitor and a thief… or… this has all been some really awful misunderstanding.

Ben’s manner of thought came as a surprise to him. In the past, he could have seen himself raging down to the dungeon, completely ready to tear into the thief, no matter who they had been. But now, he realized, he wasn’t doing that at all. Instead, he was trying to find a reason. Trying to argue Joran’s case in the middle of everything he might have felt. Looking to hear her story rather than making up assumptions.

He didn’t exactly know why… or what it meant the change of heart meant. But it wasn’t a completely unwelcome way of thinking, either.

Maybe I took a good knock on the head during one of the last battles? Who knows? I’ve spent more time sleeping and in recovery since I’ve come to the Blue Planet than I have since I lived on the Lunar world.

This time around, Ben didn’t care to ask how long he had spent sleeping after taking the brunt of the battle in the Crystal Room. It was mostly his fault that he had fallen out to begin with. The Half Lunar had made the mistake of trying to tap into and control a Crystal that had gone way beyond its intended balance.

He could feel it, even now, as Incrytan sat in the pack at his hip. Ben didn’t dare to let it stray beyond the reach of his senses. Not after losing it once.

It’s the Crystal that I made. But it’s changed. Destroying the other Crystals has tempered it into something harsh and unfriendly. Unbalanced and Chaotic.

His pet project had become a weapon of war. Just as he had once been. The original reason for its creation was now far out of his reach, especially with the Blue Planet elements on the brink of disjuncture. Freeing his father from the depths of Mt. Ordeals could not be done with Incrytan… not with the way that it had become.

There may be a way to reverse the damage though. A way to restructure the other Crystals again… As long as one set still exists, there’s a chance I can right what has been put out of balance. There’s a chance I can still complete Incrytan.

Ben was pulled out of the depths of his thoughts at a soft tug at his sleeve. Peering down, the Master Wizard saw a furrowed brow under a shock of sandy hair.

“Chase?”

“It’s not that way, Ben,” the boy informed him. He pointed down a different hallway. One lined with torches that flickered intermittently in the shadows. “She’s down here.”

The Half Lunar never questioned the boy’s knowledge. He simply nodded and followed, trusting without knowing why. Chase had never led him wrong before. It was part of the reason why Ben had chosen to bring the Page with him into the dungeon.

I know he can’t speak Lunar. But there’s something about the truth that Chase can sense regardless of language. I have to know if Joran is telling me the truth… and after all that’s happened, I don’t know how much I can believe without some outside help.

Ben wanted to believe that there was more going on under the surface than was apparent. Afterall, Joran had rushed into the battle in the Crystal Room at the risk of her own life and saved him from the attack of O.M.E.G.A.

But she also seemed to know O.M.E.G.A. And by a different name. I wonder where she’s made connections to him before this?

So there was only one way to know for sure. He had to talk to her. To hear the story. And to have Chase confirm that she was telling him the truth.

It sounded simple enough.

So why are my hands shaking?

They made the final turn down the last hallway. The Fabulian guard glanced at the two of them for a moment, but said nothing. As if he had been forewarned of the Master Wizard’s appearance. He gave a polite nod as they passed and motioned to the cell at the far end of the hall.

Ben strode quickly forwards, holding his breath as he did.

It was well lit and kindly furnished for a cell, Ben observed. There was no cruelty in the way that Joran had been handled, aside from the set of mageloks that wringed her slender wrists. But that, he had learned, was a mandatory thing when capturing a magic user there on the Blue Planet.

He fought to find his voice as one hand took hold of the nearest set of bars. Green eyes peering through, he could see Joran’s pale shape sitting in the corner of the cell. He couldn’t tell if she was sleeping… she was silent and unmoving. Finally, after watching her for a long while, the Half Lunar worked up the courage to utter a sound.

“Joran?”

At first she didn’t seem to hear. Or maybe she really was asleep. So he repeated her name again, with more strength this time.

“Joran…?”

Her head bobbed in surprise at the sound. Instantly, bright green eyes flicked up, focusing on his face. Her lips parted as if she wanted to voice something in return, a look of hopeful longing. Then as if she realized that he was really there, that he was no illusion or dream, the expression changed. It shifted into a looming trepidation and overwhelming fear.

She was terrified of him. Or rather… of the person he used to be when she knew him before.

“Joran…” Ben said for a third time, schooling as much calmness as he could into his voice. He didn’t know if his face was gentle, but he was trying hard to make it so.

He realized it was breaking his heart to see her look at him that way.

“Go..Golbez?” Joran finally gasped, both hands spreading protectively over her chest.

He could feel a welling of intense emotion, all jumbled up behind the light in her eyes. She looked like somewhere deep inside, she wanted to cry… but time had changed her, too. She had a strength now that didn’t allow for tears. Still, her anguish was deep and terribly sincere.

“It’s alright,” he told her quietly. “You don’t have to be afraid. No one is going to hurt you.”

Joran swallowed, still staring at him as if not quite believing what she was seeing.

“I’m here to talk about what happened.” Then Ben added, “I’m glad that you’re not hurt.”

The girl gave a broken sound, caught somewhere between hope, relief and distress. The sound alone made him want to pull back the bars… come to her… and do everything in his power to comfort her.

What am I thinking… I haven’t even found out what really happened..?

Ben grit his teeth, tightening his hold on the bars.

But she looks so crushed… She feels like she’s been through so much. How can I prod her and make things worse.

“Will you…” her voice cracked slightly, somewhat hoarse sounding. “Really listen to me..?”

“Yes, of course I will,” Ben nodded. “You didn’t think I would?”

“I didn’t know what you would do,” Joran admitted, eyes falling to the floor. “You have the right to be really angry at me. I know I did a terrible thing…”

The Half Lunar froze, staring at her bowed head. His memories shifted to a time when he had bowed his head before his own brother, still dressed in the armor of the Dark Lord, and spoke almost the exact same words. And though at that moment there hadn’t been complete forgiveness… there had been mercy.

For him. The once Dark Lord. A man with the blood of many on his hands.

And now Ben stood, hearing the same words spoken to him. From one that had once been his only friend… one who had offered him love… even if at the time, he hadn’t recognized what a friend was. Or how she felt about him.

“I’m not angry,” he assured her. “I just want to know what happened. I don’t understand why you took Incrytan?”

Joran nodded for a moment, looking like she was trying to collect her thoughts. When she began to talk, it was slow and collected. A rather grown up way… a way he had not heard from her before. And what she said was not at all what he had expected.

The girl told about how Sparrow, the messenger from the Trine, had come to her. How she had warned Joran about the danger of the power of Incrytan. And eventually, how she was persuaded to take the Crystal, at the order of the Trine, in order to keep him from becoming a slave to its power.

He listened as she detailed her escape to the Blue Planet. How Joran had been tricked into believing the other Elemental Crystals needed to be destroyed in order to keep him safe. How she had been warned that Ben would hunt her down for taking Incrytan. That she would need protection… which was arranged for her in the form of the Daear.

“Things started to get really out of hand at that point,” Joran choked slightly, voice heavy. “I did what they told me to do… I destroyed the Crystals. And people died.”

There was a thick, heavy silence in the room. Chase peered up from behind Ben’s elbow, golden eyes observing the conversation intently. Though he couldn’t understand what was being said, there was a look of pity written on his face. It was enough for Ben to know that the girl was telling him the truth.

“I didn’t want to hurt anyone, Golbez.” Now she looked as if she might really cry. But still, she held back. “But once I started… they kept pushing me to keep going. There was always a reason that I couldn’t stop destroying the Crystals. I was so scared… there was no one there I could trust… I was all alone except for Kip. And now, even he turned out to be just like them. He was just manipulating me.”

“Kip?” Ben asked quietly, sensing her pain on the issue.

“Yes. The man who attacked you in the Crystal Room.”

“You mean O.M.E.G.A.?”

Joran swallowed and nodded, “I was sent to wake him up. He was in cold sleep, in a sunken chamber in Zot. They told me that he could help me. I didn’t know he would attack you.”

“He claims to know me from the past,” Ben frowned and shook his head, “But I don’t remember him.”

“It doesn’t matter…” she sighed, leaning back with a sad look. “He did nothing but lie to me anyway.”

“I’m sorry,” he murmured.

Joran gave him an incredulous look. “No… I’m sorry. I was the one that made this mess to start with. You shouldn’t be apologizing for anything. I knew what I did was wrong… and everytime I wanted to turn it around and bring the Crystal back to you, someone persuaded me to do something else… or told me how angry you’d be… that I’d get hurt.”

He blinked at her, throat tightening, “Were you really that scared of me?”

“I…” she paused, squinting across the bars at him. “I was. But… you’re different, now… somehow.”

“Different..?” Ben pursed his lips.

The way she said it… made him feel good. That Joran could see something that was actually positive within him.

“Yeah,” the girl nodded. He was surprised to hear that she spoke that particular word in Common. Something she must have picked up somewhere during her time there on the Blue Planet.

“You’re different, too,” the Half Lunar told her with a slight smile. Then he turned abruptly, heading back down the hall.

“Golbez?” Joran called after him. Her voice was worried.

“Just hold on,” Ben assured her, looking over his shoulder before continuing on. “I’ll be back. I’m going to talk to my brother. I’m going to get you out of here.”

If he had stayed for just a moment longer, he would have seen her tears of relief finally break through.

Ch9-4 Baron Homecoming

Joran was standing somewhat behind him, near enough to have the protection of his presence.
“Are you ready for this?” Cecil glanced back over his shoulder as the airship descended to the docks in the Baron Square.

“I was born ready,” Edge smirked and pumped his fist.

“I wasn’t asking you,” the Paladin murmured with a droll look.

But there was no more time for conversation. The engines of the ship fell silent, replaced with the deafening shouts of the crowd. So many people had come to welcome them back – peasants, nobles, Red Wings and Dragoons alike. They all watched with mounting excitement as the ramp lowered on the ship.

Am I ready? I don’t know. I didn’t think about this part of it…

Ben watched as his brother returned the cheers and calls with a warm smile. Edge paraded forward with a wide grin and a flourishing victory wave that seemed to work up the crowds all the more. Both of them seemed to know how to manage such a large group of onlookers.

I guess being kings, they have to.

Ben paused for a moment at the top of the wooden ramp, uncertain if he should be joining the two that led the way. Afterall, he wasn’t one of the hero-kings and shouldn’t be presumptuous enough to pretend he was. As he peered down, the Half Lunar’s green eyes gazed over the crowds of people. A sudden bout of trepidation blurred the image into nothing more than blobs of moving colors and sounds. He suddenly found it hard to breathe.

“Master Ben. We have to go down now?” Porom’s voice was hard to pick out above the cheering crowds.

But he could feel the grip on his sleeve. And another. And yet another.

Glancing down, Ben recognized several pairs of eyes peering back at him. Chase and Porom held his arm on one side. And on the other, Joran stood, looking nearly as frightened about facing the multitude of humans as he felt. She wove both of her hands around his lower arm in a grip that searched for support and protection from the unknown, alien world.

The whole situation with Joran had worked out far better than Ben could have imagined. The Master Wizard was really very surprised at Cecil’s reaction to her story. Ben was even more surprised at how willingly the Paladin had believed and trusted the things that he said, even though Cecil had no previous knowledge of the Lunar girl before this time.

They say that Paladin’s can sense evil… I wonder if he just knows by looking at her that she didn’t mean to do the things she did?

Regardless of the reasons, the outcome was a good one. They both had chosen to play it safe in the eyes of others until proper process could find Joran a victim of manipulation and circumstances in the eyes of society. Afterall, a lot of damage had been done. And humans were not the most forgiving of creatures.

Because of that, Cecil had arranged it so that Joran was left under Ben’s constant supervision. If anyone asked, she was still considered to be under watch. But the truth was, the girl was pretty much free to do as she pleased as long as she stayed within Ben’s immediate presence. They had even taken off the mageloks.

Neither of them had any complaints about the setup. Joran was more than willing to stay as near to Ben as she could. It was obvious that she was afraid and uncertain about what was going to happen to her. She was caught up in a place where she was considered a criminal and no one could speak her language, except a select few.

But there’s something more to it…

The feeling that Ben got when she looked at him… he had never quite felt that way before. He didn’t have the words to describe it. It was just so rare to know that someone looked upon him with trust… looked to him for protection and support… something about it left him feeling giddy and light in the chest.

I’ve never been someone’s guardian before.

It was a good feeling. So Ben did everything he could to hide his own fears for her sake. To be strong in the face of what frightened him… so that he could give her something strong to hold on to. Because he knew what it felt like to face so many people that were unlike himself. He felt that way every time he went to the Blue Planet or to the Lunar Homeworld.

“Are you ready?” Ben’s voice was low, echoing the words that his brother had spoken earlier. His large hand enveloped one of Joran’s in a firm but gentle hold.

She nodded silently, eyes focused on the hem of his cloak.

“Just remember,” he continued softly. “They don’t know a thing about you. Cecil said that he would protect your identity to the best of his ability. So don’t be afraid.”

Joran’s focus fell back upon the crowd, a bit clearer and less afraid. His words seemed to have registered and possibly even helped. Still holding his hand, she began to walk with the Half Lunar as they began to make their way down the wooden ramp.

The sound of the crowd did not change as Ben feared it might upon his appearance. People were happy at the arrival of their king. People were celebrating their hard earned victory against the invading army. People were relieved to have their loved ones still at their side, despite the time of hardship that had fallen upon so many of them. All of these things Ben could feel as his mind and vision cleared.

The plight, resilience and determination of the Human race.

Joran seemed to see these things as well, despite the fact that she could not fully understand the language spoken around her. The Lunar girl observed with a detached silence of an outsider… and the acute interest of someone from a distant land.

Most of the Lunars that had survived the breaking of Runne were quite young. Only children. In their world, they could hardly remember what it meant to have a family or ever a warm, supportive community. All of these things Joran watched in the humans as they made their way down the wooden plank.

A shout rang out over the square as the crowd jostled to and fro, pushed from something within the throng. Before Ben could make sense of what was going on, the shout rang out again, more clearly this time.

“Porom!!”

The girl turned to see her twin brother shove the final few feet out of a nearby group of people. Her face cycled through many hues of color, finally fixing on a slightly embarrassed pink. But the shimmer in her eyes spoke of a pleasure beyond the embarrassment. So did the fact that she was already rushing to her sibling without so much as a moment’s hesitation.

Ben watched with upraised eyebrows as the two of them met in a long, cheerful hug. Something in him couldn’t help but wonder if that’s how brother and sister reunited on the Blue Planet.

Should it be the same for brother and brother..?

The Half Lunar’s green eyes strayed over to glance at his own sibling thoughtfully. But Cecil wasn’t paying attention to him at the moment – he was also watching the twins’ reunion.

Me? With Cecil? Not likely…

Before Ben could work up further thoughts about his brother, he saw the crowd on the other side of the ship begin to part, though in a much more orderly way. It wasn’t hard to tell that people of importance were making their way towards the landing pad. And it wasn’t hard to guess who it was.

“Cecil!” Rosa’s heartfelt call could be heard far above the chatter.

The Paladin turned just as his blonde-haired wife rushed out of the parting crowd. She was waving her laced handkerchief in one hand wildly. The display between the two of them was hardly what could probably be considered proper courtly etiquette. But neither of them seemed to care as they rushed forward and came together in a passionate embrace, right there in the middle of the Square.

Ben felt himself stare a bit as they exchanged a long, affectionate kiss. Joran watched the exchange with a hint of wonderment. And the crowd just cheered all the more.

Edge had also rushed off, caught up in the moment of revelry, making a bee-line towards a small, green-haired woman who had arrived with Rosa. Though his memories were hazy, Ben thought he could recognize her, and knew from the way the Ninja acted that this had to be Rydia.

The girl-Caller from the Underworld.

Rydia met the Eblanian King with a scowl and flick of her hands. The furrowed brow warned him not to even try hugging her. No — not to even THINK about it. But there was some amusement in their give and take, something that spoke of friendship. Maybe even something more.

Everyone has returned to their loved-ones again. Maybe all will be well, after all.

Ben sighed softly, watching the scene of welcomes and reunions unfold before him. And without him. For all that he had wanted to believe Baron was a place for him to protect and return to… at this moment, he could only watch from the sidelines, very much alone.

He heard an echo of his own sigh and glanced down over his shoulder. Joran was standing somewhat behind him, near enough to have the protection of his presence. Far enough to not “get in his way” as she seemed so worried that she might do.

Joran, too, stood on the outside of it all. Even more isolated by the walls of language barrier. And unlike him, she had no real hope to be included in any welcome there on the Blue Planet.

She’s been away from home for a long time. I wonder if she misses it? I bet she wants to go back… I know if I were her, I would want to.

Once again pushing down his own thoughts, Ben turned to the girl and gave his best, most sincere-type smile. When he spoke, it was in the Lunar language. Not knowing where to begin, he told her of things she probably already knew, “This is the kingdom of Baron. It’s the home of my brother, Cecil. He’s the King here.”

At first, Joran seemed startled to hear words in her native tongue. And even more startled that someone had considered her in the middle of it all. The girl seemed to fish to find a proper response. The one she came up with was just as proper as any, in his mind.

“A human city?” she asked.

“That’s right,” he nodded.

“How does a Half Lunar end up the ruler of a human city?” Joran pondered. Then her chin jerked up as if she realized she might have said something that could have offended. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all!”

“I’m not really sure,” Ben waved away her concern with an answer. “I think the people chose him to be king. He was a hero from the Crystal War, afterall.”

“Chose?” the girl asked with no little surprise. After what Ben had read about the government of the Runnian people, he could understand why.

“There is no such thing as the Manor here,” the Half Lunar informed her. “Not that there can’t be. But so far as I’ve seen, there isn’t. The rulers are just and they really do fight and care for their people.”

“I see…” Joran nodded, sucking on her bottom lip. “Then that is the reason why KluYa wanted so much to come to live here. The Blue Planet must be a wonderful place to live.”

It was his turn to be surprised, caught off guard by the mention of his father. “Maybe so.”

After a long moment of awkward silence, Joran finally spoke again. “Do you have a place to stay here now? On the Blue Planet, I mean?”

“I have a guest room in the castle. It’s not really my own or anything,” Ben answered.

“Are you… planning on coming back here?” she asked, her words quavering a little.

“Coming back here?” he echoed, wondering why there was such a sudden shift in the sound of her voice.

“To live?”

The Half Lunar paused. It took him a moment to realize that it was actually a more valid question than he could have ever thought. But he shook his head as he picked his words carefully, “I don’t know. I really haven’t thought about it. I don’t know how much my brother wants me around, to tell the truth.”

“Oh,” was her simple answer. It was hard to tell what she was thinking at this point.

So he changed the subject, hoping to lighten up the mood, “Would you like for me to show you around Baron?”

As Joran’s head lifted in response to his suggestion, he could see something of the girl he used to know there. That hint of innocent curiosity. A wonderment for the world around her. Desire to learn and to know and to understand. All of the things that Ben now realized were traits that he really respected in someone else.

“Yes… I’d like that a lot?” she told him. Then with a hint of a smile, she linked her arm around the bend of his elbow. Her eyes shown up at him with a warm light. “Where should we start?”

Ben felt a strange heat creep across his cheeks as he stared down at her boldness. It was really going to be hard to go anywhere until he could figure out how to wipe the flush off his face…

Ch9-5 Lunarian Homecoming

Two bright green eyes and a freckled face peeked around the edge of the doorframe.
Finally, Golbez has the Rifts working again! I have been away far too long!

After having spent so much time on the Blue Planet, returning back to the Lunar Homeworld was an anxious thing for FuSoYa. Though Golbez had chosen to remain, for now, back on the Blue Planet, there were far too many things that did not run themselves when FuSoYa was away.

Who knows what trouble I will find in the Stronghold.

The ancient Lunar wiped the beads of sweat from his brow as he made his way up the white steps into the fortress. It was now what could be considered mid-summer there. The heat and humidity made it nearly impossible to be anywhere outside of the cooling crystalline walls of the fortress – it was part of the magic that Golbez had built into the structure when the area was first being settled.

It is both a blessed and a cursed landscape here.

Sometimes FuSoYa wondered if it had been the wisest thing to do, simply settle on the first spot that they had found on this new planet. But having waited so long to establish a home upon the Blue Planet and to come up empty handed… it had been hard for him to wait any longer.

Perhaps it was a reckless thing to do. But the energy of the Red Moon was waning the further we traveled.

So far, there had been no sign of other peoples there within the area that the Lunars had explored on the new Homeworld. That didn’t mean that other people didn’t exist somewhere beyond the lush tropic lands and the great beasts of the forests. But FuSoYa wasn’t so concerned about other peoples as he was about simply seeing their own people survive in the new, wild landscape.

This has not been an easy transition for any of us. It does not help that the majority of the colonists that are here are merely children that were saved from the Manor.

Whether anyone else had survived the destruction of Runne, FuSoYa did not know. He only knew that he and KluYa had managed to rescue a small number of children from the planet’s firey fate. Ever since that terrible day, FuSoYa had made it his responsibility to lead the remaining generation of their society and do everything he could to see that it lived and flourished.

It was all far easier said than done.

FuSoYa pushed the doors to his private office open only to find everything in a terrible disarray. All of his books lay scattered about the room, some of them hanging off of the shelves. If there had been any order to his papers and studies, that, too, was scattered across the room, looking more like makeshift wallpaper than research had a right to.

There were sticky spots across the floor where some of his tomes had been bound for weeks. A strange, tangy smell reached his nose, telling him of something half-eaten laying hidden under all of the mess somewhere.

In the middle of it all, three pairs of bright green eyes stared at him. The shock of being caught in his office, upon his desk, in the middle of such a mess, was written plainly over the young Lunars’ faces.

“What is the meaning of this?” FuSoYa grated from between clenched teeth.

One Lunar child began to stammer at the sight of FuSoYa. But try as he might, no words escaped his lips.

Finally, another managed to speak, “High Sage FuSoYa! We… we…”

“We’re so glad you’re still alive!” another one squeaked. “We didn’t think you were coming back. You were gone so long!”

“Inform me of what that has to do with me returning to find my office like this?” FuSoYa arched a bristling eyebrow.

“Um… It was the snakes. They made an infestation!” the first spluttered quickly, motioning to the window.

“I see?” FuSoYa turned to observe the tightly closed – and locked — window. Then his sharp eyes fell back upon them.

They all knew, afterall, the things that they called “snakes” for lack of a better name, were actually more like dragon-serpents in size. There was no way for one of those creatures to get through the window without damaging it… and likely the whole wall as well.

The room fell silent as the three wayward Lunar children decided that their only hope was to make a break through the open doors on the other side of the chamber. They scattered with a yelp, leaving the High Sage sighing at the mess around him.

“I do not understand what part of cleanliness that children simply do not understand,” he grumbled half to himself, half to the offending desktop not far away. He didn’t dare try to take a seat.

What he had really wanted to do upon getting back home was dive right into follow up research on some of the things that his research group had discovered during their time in the libraries of the Blue Planet. Now FuSoYa would have access to his own documents as well as the many tomes of the underground Lunar library. That which was only hinted at in the Blue Planet texts may have more answers if he just looked in the right place.

The Darkstar… the Sygnus… Dreigiau and Luccious. All these old legends that never died. They come back again, unfinished, waiting for us to write the next chapter.

Unfortunately, research for the next chapter of history couldn’t begin until his office saw a proper cleaning. There was no way he could concentrate in such a clutter… much less the tang of stench.

With a grumble, the ancient Lunar began to pluck books and other scattered belongings from the sticky floor. FuSoYa had not so much as cleared a single corner, however, before a quiet knock came on his door. Blowing the long strands of hair out of his face, he uprighted himself and turned bristly eyebrows at the sound.

“Who bothers me now?”

The door squeaked open slowly, as if the squeaker on the other side was having second thoughts about entering the Sage’s den. Two bright green eyes and a freckled face peeked around the edge of the doorframe, the voice reverent and kept at a polite level, “Master FuSoYa? Are you really home?”

Of all the squeakers there could be, the Sage found himself pleased to see this one. “Indeed, Young NaTu. I am finally back.”

“May I report, Master?”

“Yes, come in, child,” FuSoYa spoke softly.

Encouraged, the boy stepped forward, surveying the destruction around him in a mute sort of shock. There was little doubt that he had nothing to do with the raid on FuSoYa’s belongings. Afterall, when the High Sage gave an order, NaTu was one of the few that followed it to the last letter.

Which is why his duty was to guard the Crystal Room.

It was also the reason why Young NaTu was his prized student. The Lunar boy was the only child in the Stronghold that had shown an early aptitude for Mind Magery – an Athrylith like himself. Which was not surprising given who his parents had been.

“What is the matter, NaTu?” the Sage asked after a long moment of open mouthed awe from the boy.

“Master… who did this to your quarters?” NaTu finally asked with a firm purse of his lips. As if he would have taken it upon himself to see justice done.

“Just the riff-raff troublemakers, I’m afraid,” FuSoYa sighed, picking up another book.

Before the Sage could blink, the young Athrylith was rushing about, picking up books and papers, far more spry than FuSoYa could hope to be. “I’m sorry, Master! I didn’t know that anyone had come up here! I wouldn’t have let them touch anything if I had known.”

“Yes. Yes. I’m aware of that, NaTu. This is not your responsibility,” the old Lunar waved a hand at the boy to calm him.

Always just a tad over-zealous… like his father used to be. Hopefully the boy will outgrow that.

“Responsibility…” Just as suddenly, the boy set the accumulated pile of books and papers on the desk, giving a little shudder, “Master FuSoYa. That’s actually what I came here to report about.”

The grave tone of NaTu’s voice turned the Sage’s head. Eyes sharp, attention focused, FuSoYa frowned, “Please continue?”

“I’ve been watching over the Crystals in the Chamber as you instructed me to,” the Athrylith began, working to pick his words carefully. “No one else has had access to the Crystals. I’ve made very sure of it, Master.”

“That is good.”

“Thank you, Master,” the boy bobbed his head, ever polite. But also not one to be swayed off of his train of thought, he continued, “Ever since you were gone, I’ve been noticing some sort of disruption within the energy signatures of the Crystals. Over time, it’s gotten worse. I’m not sure what the cause could be. But lately, it is almost dangerous to approach the chamber for all the imbalance of energy in the room.”

“Dangerous?” FuSoYa lifted an eyebrow.

“Yes, Master. Last week, I witnessed streaks of energy being emitted from a number of the Crystals,” NaTu answered. “Since then, they’ve been randomly displaying this activity. I’m really afraid of going in there… and I’ve made triple sure that no one else has.”

The Sage fell quiet, running the thoughts through his mind.

The boy took it as a hint that he should attempt to continue, even though he had said all the important bits he knew to say, “I’m really not sure what has caused this. As I said, no one has been in there to meddle with the Crystals. And I haven’t done anything that I don’t normally do when taking care of–”

FuSoYa lifted one hand. “I know, Young NaTu. This was nothing of your doing.”

“Oh?” the boy’s eyes widened a little, “Then… do you know what is causing it?”

“Yes,” the ancient Lunar answered gravely, one hand stroking through his beard. “There has been an incident with the Crystals on the Blue Planet.”

“Blue Planet? But Master… haven’t you just returned from there?” NaTu asked.

“Yes…” FuSoYa murmured quietly.

I did not think about this kind of danger. If the Crystals that we keep here are balanced by those of the Blue Planet… when the Crystals were destroyed there, that may cause an imbalance with the remaining Crystals here. There is no telling what it could do.

NaTu’s mouth dropped open. His freckles stood out more than usual as his face grew pale.

FuSoYa caught the expression, knowing at once that the boy had overheard. At first, he wondered if he had mistakenly spoke the words aloud… until he remembered NaTu’s Mind Mage tendencies. Having been around the humans for so long, people who were far less mind sensitive, he had gotten out of the habit of watching his stream of conscious thought.

“NaTu,” the Sage gave a disapproving frown.

“I’m sorry, Master. I didn’t mean to!” the boy dropped his head in shame.

“Nothing that can be done for it,” FuSoYa gave a low grunt. “You will keep this information to yourself. Your punishment will be to help me figure out what must be done to contain the Crystals.”

The young Athrylith bowed even lower, “Yes Master.”

If only the rest of the children were so sensible…

The Sage mused to himself for a moment before realizing that his student was not uprighting himself. He sighed, “Is there something else?”

“Actually… yes… there is?”

“Continue then.”

“It’s about the Moon,” NaTu answered, slowly lifting his head again. When his eyes met the ancient Lunar’s gaze, there was a deep concern. “Something’s been happening to it… and I wondered if there was some connection to what is happening to the Crystals.”

“What have you observed?” FuSoYa furrowed his brow.

“It’s getting brighter every night,” the boy replied. “I thought it was my imagination at first. But now I’m sure that the Moon is turning red.”

Ch9-6 Dark-Eyed Stranger

Ben found himself meeting gazes with a dark-eyed stranger that was watching them from the distant corner.
The streets of Baron were already decorated, not even a day after their arrival. Ben was surprised at how quickly the whole city could transform from one huddling under fear of invasion to a victorious celebration. Relief and triumph seemed to be powerful emotions for the humans. And it was in the spirit of these things that the revelry was taking place.

The sound of music could be heard off in the distance as light from the rows of multi-colored lanterns shown down on the heads of brightly dressed people passing in the streets. The scent of many strange foods wafted through the air. Voices were lifted in conversation and in song. The crowds were dotted here and there with the barking of dogs or a scampering cat.

Merchants had put their wares on display… but even these things were at a reasonable price. As if victory in a great battle did a lot for the generosity of vendors.

Refugee mages of Mysidia also took part in the celebration knowing that soon enough they would be able to return home and begin restoring their own city. Some of the mages offered displays of magic for the mystified Baronian children. Others told stories or presented games of chance to delight and amuse.

No matter where one looked, there were people, laughter, dancing or food.

Ben had never experienced something so extraordinary – that he could remember – in his life. From the look on Joran’s face, neither had she. There was so much to see and do and so much good emotion in the air that the two of them had momentarily forgotten feelings of misplacement there on the Blue Planet. So they traversed the length of the festivities, exploring the transformation in the world around them.

“What’s this?” Joran would ask, rushing over to yet something else that was new. She drank in all the details with wide-eyed, childlike wonder. As soon as she was done with one thing, off she went to the next, pulling Ben along behind her. “What’s that?”

The Half Lunar was pleased that about seven times out of ten he actually had a correct answer to her questions. But it also made him realize that there was still a lot about the human world that he didn’t know. So many basic things that he had yet to learn. Or that he might have learned in years long past but had forgotten.

It was hard to tell. But Joran didn’t chide him when he couldn’t provide an answer. So he didn’t scold himself too harshly when he found himself stumped.

Finally, the two of them settled down next to a vendor of food-things where they busied themselves trying one of the strange human concoctions known as cheesecake-on-a-stick. It was not exactly what he would have expected… Ben certainly knew what cheese was. And he knew what cake was. But though it was a yellow color, it was not a cake made completely of cheese at all.

I wonder if Cecil knows of this false advertisement?

The Half Lunar would have pondered the question further except that he felt a strong prickle rise along the back of his neck. The kind of sensation one got when unfriendly eyes were observing. Not knowing where the feeling was coming from, Ben began to search the crowds. But there were just too many people for him to be able to pick out any one watching.

Maybe it’s just my imagination…

“Hey, look at this?” Joran’s voice brought him out of his thoughts.

Before he could protest, the girl had a hold of his arm and was tugging him along to a merchant across the street. There were toys of many shapes and colors decorating the brightly adorned cart. Ben quickly found himself captivated, along with a line of other children, staring at the trinkets and games.

The vendor seemed to be surprised at the sort of crowd he was gathering at his cart. His eyes observed the Master Wizard with a bit of caution. It was hard to tell if the man knew who he was looking at or if Ben’s unusual appearance was causing the stare. When he did approach, it was with a polite tone of voice.

“Good afternoon? Looking for something special for the little girl?” the merchant cracked a wide smile at Joran. “I might have just the thing?”

Ben blinked, taken aback at the statement for a moment. Then he realized that to a human, Joran might seem younger than she really was due to her Lunar build and look.

It’s a good thing that she can’t understand Common. I’d hate to have to explain this one to her.

He also didn’t feel like trying to correct the man, so he simply shook his head answering, “No, that’s okay. We’re just looking.”

“Alrighty then. Just let me know if I can help you with anything?” the merchant replied with a jovial glance at Joran. Then he went back to demonstrating to the children how to make a strange, flat disc travel up and down on a track of string that was tied to his finger.

“How does he do that?” Joran marveled.

“I don’t know?” Ben answered, watching too. Then on a whim, he added, “But I can make fireballs dance?”

She gave a sudden laugh, “I bet you can?”

The Half Lunar laughed, too, with a wide, lopsided grin. Just as he lifted his eyes to glance past the girl’s head, he felt the warning prickle along the back of his neck again. But this time, Ben found himself meeting gazes with a dark-eyed stranger that was watching them from the distant corner.

It was a man of unremarkable build and unremarkable dress. In fact, he almost stood out in the crowd because he was possibly the most dull-looking person there. His garb was a simple brown over-coat and simple brown slacks – though they were finely cut and well pressed, they were drably colored without the slightest adornment. Even his hair was a rather drab brown, somewhat slicked back over rather plain, dark eyes. The face was weathered with middle age and sported the only landmark of personality – the large hook of a prominent nose.

The moment that their eyes locked, the stranger turned away. There was a feeling about him. Something that shouldn’t be there. Something that left a chill.

“Golbez… what’s wrong?” Joran asked, tracing his line of sight back towards the stranger.

Before Ben could answer, two things happened. The stranger turned around to make a rather quickly-walked exit. And Captain Highwind nearly marched over the stranger as the Dragoon came walking up the street from the opposite direction. The two men exchanged low words at the site of the near-collision. Then continued on their way.

The Half Lunar furrowed his brow, uncertain of what it all meant. A moment later, he found himself being flagged down by Kain.

“There you are!” the Dragoon grumbled, approaching quickly. “Cecil’s been asking for you everywhere. Have you been out here all this time?”

“Yes..? Was there… another place I was supposed to be?” Ben frowned.

“I have no idea. But Cecil seems to think so,” Kain replied. “I guess he’s had people looking for you all over the castle. I think he was holding up supper for you?”

“Er… oops?”

“Oops is right.”

“Golbez? What’s going on?” Joran questioned, hearing the tension in the sound of Kain’s voice.

“Uh.. nothing. We just need to be heading back to the castle now. They’re going to have a big dinner, I guess?” he told her in Lunar.

“Big dinner?” she sighed. “Do we have to go back? It’s much more fun out here?”

“I know. And I agree,” Ben nodded slowly. “But when Cecil requests my presence, I really can’t tell him no?”

“Why not?”

“Well… because he’s the king?” he answered with a wrinkled brow, beginning to walk back towards the castle.

“Sooo? It’s a big festival! We should all have fun, right?” Joran waved her hands around.

“Don’t forget that Cecil’s also the one protecting your identity right now,” Ben pointed out.

This made the girl fall silent with a soft sigh. There wasn’t much she could say to argue with that. So instead, she fell in next to the Half Lunar and the Dragoon, walking back towards the castle.

After a bit of silence, Ben finally thought to ask, “Kain?”

“Yeah?” the Dragoon answered, half turned around and hardly paying attention to him. His eyes were following a couple of girls in festival dresses as they made their way towards one of the booths.

“Who was that man out on the street?”

The nature of the question caught Kain’s interest, causing him to turn back to the Master Wizard. “What man?”

“You know… the one you bumped into just before you came over to talk to us?” Ben elaborated.

“Bumped into..?” the Dragoon mused to himself, squinting. It was obvious that the sight of frilled festival dresses did a lot to wipe his short term memory.

“The one with the big nose?”

“Big… nose – OH! You mean Browning?” Kain snapped his fingers with a wide grin.

“Browning?”

“Bradhoc Browning. Yeah, I was a little surprised to see him in town — he comes around every so often. He’s from one of the noble houses in Baron,” the blonde-haired man explained.

“Then he’s a member of nobility?” Ben furrowed his brow, trying to think of reasons why a stranger from the noble class would have been watching him in such a way. Why he would get such chills.

“Well… sorta. The family name lost a lot of their clout after the Crystal Wars. You don’t hear much from any of them anymore,” Kain gave a grimace. There was more to the story, but he wasn’t giving it all.

So the Half Lunar decided to fish, “Did something happen during the War?”

“It’s funny you should ask,” the Dragoon glanced over his shoulder. “The family was never known to be the most upstanding lot. But they really lost their entire name after the Baigan incident.”

“Baigan?” Ben squinted a bit. He knew the name.

Baigan had been the Captain of the Guard who had sold out his loyalty to the Fiend Kainazzo during the Crystal Wars in pursuit of promises and power. There wasn’t much more that Ben could remember about the name – he had probably seen the man once or twice, but never really spoken to him. Baigan had always been one of Kainazzo’s lackeys.

But what that had to do with this situation, Ben didn’t know.

Kain took it upon himself, however, to fill in the blank, “Yeah. Baigan was a part of that noble family. As a matter of fact, I think he was Bradhoc’s cousin.”

“Oh…”

“So, why all the interest in him, anyway?” the Dragoon asked with a frown.

“Er… no reason,” Ben brushed off the question quickly. It might not be a good idea to alert Kain to the fact that he was being watched. Especially since there was a connection to someone like Baigan in the middle of it all.

If he knows who I am… perhaps he’s looking for some sort of revenge?

“Ahhh… don’t worry about Bradhoc. He’s got an inflated ego and he has a taste for women. But he’s pretty harmless,” Kain replied with a wave of his hand. “No one takes him all that seriously – he’s known for having his unstable bouts. If you know what I mean?”

“Uh..?”

“We think the whole Baigan thing knocked a few bolts loose up in his head,” he laughed.

“Hmmm…” the Half Lunar frowned. “If you say so.”

Ben wasn’t quite convinced at the harmless-ness of it all. But the steps of Castle Baron were now under his feet. And the royal dinner was waiting, put on hold without him – he could already see his brother’s scolding face about that! There were far too many other things to worry about for him to dwell on the shadows of a past that he could not remember.

Ch9-7 Fair Exchange

A moment of rummaging in one of his pockets produced a set of numbered keys.
Cutting deals with humans… what’s the sense in this? I could have snuck in this place with no problem at all. I don’t get why we had to go involving outside sources.

Kip leaned back into the shadows along the castle wall, only the single burning green eye glinting from under the heavy curve of his hood. Baron was in the process of a victory celebration – the sounds and the feelings carried up into the twilight sky. And in the middle of it all was O.M.E.G.A., crouched in the shadows. Waiting. Unnoticed.

It would have been nothing for him to have scaled the castle wall. Not with all the noise going on in the city. Just a few quick manipulations would have had the human guards knowing none the wiser. But instead, Kip was instructed to wait there until nightfall and deliver a wrapped package to someone who would meet him there. In exchange, Kip was supposed to be granted access to Castle Baron.

I sure hope this Luccious guy knows what he’s doing.

A chill ran over Kip’s body when he thought about the place he had just come from – the world of the Mists. And of the creature he had met thee that called himself Luccious. It was a name so familiar, something that Kip knew he had heard before. A name he felt he should know from somewhere. But he just couldn’t figure out why.

It doesn’t matter.

O.M.E.G.A. repeated that to himself like a creed. Nothing mattered now – everything was do or die. Luccious had granted him renewed ability and power to take down Golbez. And in order to do that, he had to destroy the rest of the Elemental Crystals. Achieving that meant he had to reclaim the lost Incrytan. Which pointed him to one very obvious move.

I have to get Joran back on my side. Even if it’s against her will.

Kip scowled at that thought. It was really distasteful. But then O.M.E.G.A. reminded him that nothing mattered.

Incrytan sees me as an enemy… chances are, only Joran and Golbez can even use the thing. Much less turn it against other Crystals. I have no other choice.

Impatience began to set in as night washed over the celebrating city. O.M.E.G.A. pushed away the sounds of happiness and mirth, focused on what lay ahead. Planning. Running over the plan again and again. Thinking of how it would happen. What could go wrong.

What he would do when all of this was over. When O.M.E.G.A.’s objective was finally won. When Kip could finally rest.

“Have you come?” a voice suddenly spoke from the shadows.

It took Kip by surprise. Having been lost to his thoughts, his normally keen senses did not alert him to the presence of someone else. Or maybe, that someone else had ways of not alerting others.

Secondly, the voice had spoken in the Lunar language. It was strangely accented like someone who was still just refining pronunciation. But it had certainly been Lunar.

“I am here,” Kip replied, speaking in Lunar, with a frown.

I thought I was meeting with a human here. I wonder what the deal is.

The figure that strode down to join him was most certainly human, however. A man, dressed in fairly well-to-do attire, all plain brown in color. He, too, wore a hood over his head, obscuring all but the glitter of two dark eyes and the hook of a rather largely pronounced nose. The man carried nothing but a darkwood walking stick that held an amber-colored stone encased in the grip. To the untrained eye, it seemed rather plain… but to one who spent time hunting artifacts, it was easy to see the hidden magics in the piece.

Now this is… interesting.

“Do you have the exchange?” the man asked, once again speaking in Lunar.

“Yes,” Kip slowly unwrapped the package, letting the corner of a dark box peek out, in the light of the moon.

The man nodded shrewdly and received the box, quickly stowing it away in the folds of his cloak. There was a no-nonsense manner that told Kip could that he was a business man and had many shady transactions similar to this in the past. “Good. Follow me. I have yours waiting.”

O.M.E.G.A. did just that, chafed slightly by the thought that he had to put his half-trust into a deal cut by two parties that he had very little knowledge of at all. The man strode forward, leading him down into a gully between two tall hills, then along a path that took them straight to the road.

With a few flicks of his walking stick, he brushed a few stray bits of weeds from the hem of his cloak. Then he continued straight for the gates of Baron Castle, looking no more out of place than anyone else. As they came closer, he withdrew the security of his hood, revealing common looking middle-aged human features under the fall of well-kept brown hair. Something strange and glittery on the back of the man’s neck caught Kip’s eye. But it was hard to tell what it was with hair obscuring the sight.

The guards at the castle gates gave the two of them a quiet glance as they strode up to the door. Their eyes seemed to linger on Kip’s hooded figure for a moment longer than he would have liked. But no move was made to keep them from entering.

“All this noise,” the man said to the guards with an arrogant wave of his hand. He was now speaking in perfect common. “It’s enough to give a migraine. Don’t you think?”

The guards’ attention was pulled away from Kip and back to the brown-cloaked figure. The one on the right answered quickly, “Just folks having a good time, Master Bradhoc. Nothing too wrong with that.”

“As long as they keep it to themselves,” Bradhoc muttered back with a haughty frown. Then he strode through the gates, past the guards, with Kip following on his heels.

Well… here I am. In the castle. The human held his part of the deal… so far, anyhow. I wonder what his connection is in all of this.

Kip didn’t know exactly where Bradhoc was leading him. But the man seemed to have a purpose in the direction he was heading. So O.M.E.G.A. followed silently, the single eye keeping watch for anything that might be a trap.

This seems too easy.

But nothing unusual happened as they made their way through the long, grey halls. In the distance, Kip could still hear the sounds of the celebration in the city. There was the occasional voice of servants or maids wandering the corridors. But for the most part there was no one in the castle to see them. And those that did, paid no attention to the two of them the moment that they recognized Bradhoc.

He must be a regular around here or something.

After tracing the length of a few more hallways, the man stopped in front of a line of doors. There was a shifty hint to his eyes as he studied their surroundings. Seeming content that there was nothing to pose danger or interruption, Bradhoc turned towards Kip and spoke in a low voice, falling back into the Lunar language.

“The third door from the end. On the left. That is the guestroom where Golbez is staying.”

Of all the things that had happened, this alarmed Kip the most. Instantly, his body stiffened with paranoia. Afterall, he had not told the human his motivations for being there… much less whom he was looking for.

Bradhoc seemed to realize that his companion was on the defensive. As he opened the door to his own guestroom, he shot a quiet look over his shoulder, “I was told that was who you were looking for. Is that incorrect?”

“You were told that? By whom?” O.M.E.G.A. grated through clenched teeth.

“Do you really think I’m going to answer that?”

Luccious…?

O.M.E.G.A.’s face must have darkened because the human replied quickly, “This is not the best place to discuss this.”

“Mmm…” Kip made a grudging sound. But the words had sense.

Pushing the door open, the human stepped into the guest room. With a motion, he indicated that Kip should follow. Cautiously, O.M.E.G.A. stepped through the door. Even when it was closed behind him, he did not stray too far from the room’s exit. It seemed like a normal enough guest room – a bed, bookcase, counter and desk – but one could never tell.

“Golbez may be the king’s brother, but that doesn’t mean everyone in Baron accepts his return to the Blue Planet,” Bradhoc walked over to the far wall and pulled down a glass, pouring himself something. Just as a proper host would, he glanced across the room with upraised eyebrows, “Drink?”

“No thanks,” O.M.E.G.A. frowned.

“You could use it. You’re strung as tight as a spring,” the human murmured, downing the glass in a few long swallows.

O.M.E.G.A. didn’t feel like trifling. He placed his palm heavily on the nearby desk, a sharp look to his single eye. “What were you told?”

“Relax. No one is going to expose your cover, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Bradhoc seemed hardly phased. In fact, he poured himself yet another drink. “I’ve been instructed to observe Golbez and his ward since they returned to Baron. I assume you’re the one being sent in for assassination.”

“Sent in?” irritation thickened Kip’s voice. “I don’t work for anyone.”

“No. Of course not,” the human snuffed.

Already, O.M.E.G.A. was getting fed up with Bradhoc’s conceit. It was too bad the human was somehow connected to Luccious, or else he would have considered relieving the Blue Planet of some extra, unneeded arrogance.

Right now, my hands are tied. I need Luccious’ backing on this… so I gotta play by the rules. Just until Golbez is dead.

Bradhoc tapped his walking stick against the side of his boot with a hint of impatience in turn. “You are here to remove Golbez, yes?”

“Eventually,” Kip answered, forcing himself to be somewhat civilized. Since he had the employment of an overbearing but knowledgeable guide, he figured he should make use of it. “Right now I need to know where the girl is rooming.”

The human paused for a moment, obviously questioning to himself about the reasoning behind Kip’s request. When he spoke again, it was slower, this time. “She stays in the room across the hall from him.”

“Is she with Golbez often?”

“Nearly constantly. I’ve not seen the two of them apart, at least in public,” Bradhoc answered.

“I assume they are out at the festival tonight,” O.M.E.G.A. inquired.

“They were. I saw them earlier,” came a slow nod. “However, the king is holding a special dinner soon. It’s likely that Golbez and the girl will be attending that.”

“So they will be coming back to the castle shortly?”

“Yes. I would rely on it,” Bradhoc confirmed. He fiddled with the lock on a metal safe on the far end of the room. The door opened with a sharp click. He then reached inside and pulled out a small, wrapped parcel in one hand, holding it carefully.

O.M.E.G.A. was already starting to calculate, plan and figure how things were going to fall in place. A slow, twisted smile wound its way over his face, “Do you have means to enter the guest rooms?”

“Of course,” the human answered. A moment of rummaging in one of his pockets produced a set of numbered keys. With a practiced twist of his wrist, he pulled a pair from the ring and held them and the parcel out. “This is what you came here for. And you’re going to need these.”

Kip couldn’t help the nasty quip that rose in his throat at the sight, “You’re so eager to trade away your loyalty to Baron?”

Something about this statement must have rubbed Bradhoc the wrong way. For the first time, a look of sharp disapproval marred the lines of his face. “My loyalty to the kingdom of Baron is unquestioned. I do this because I am loyal.”

“Oh? And how do you see that?”

“Golbez is only a part of the royal family by relation. Anyone should be able to recognize that he’s only here to take advantage of his brother’s good intentions,” came the frowned explanation. “Once a Dark Lord… always a Dark Lord. I’ve already seen one puppet king of Baron. I don’t want to live through it a second time.”

“Mmmm…” O.M.E.G.A. studied the man for a moment. Bradhoc’s words made some sense in a strange sort of way. Enough to give Kip slight change in opinion about the human. Not a whole lot — just a little.

“Royal dinners are long,” Bradhoc informed him with a hint of suggestion. “But they don’t last forever.”

“I know,” with a dangerous smile, O.M.E.G.A. reached out and took the parcel and the keys.