# FFL Part 7: Convictions

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FINAL FANTASY LEGACY
Knights of the Round

Started by Brian Stricklin
This chapter by Aaron Peori

Chapter Seven: Convictions

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The day started out cold and wet and thoroughly unpleasant. One of
those rain-tinged winds that swept over every seaside town in the
world had come out of the Clea's Sea and left the entire
place soaked and unseasonably cold. The people of Atlantea were used
to such days and as such they went about their business as best as they
were able to, ignoring the damp that clung to everything like the
clammy hands of long dead souls. By mid-afternoon most of them guessed
the squall would die down and the sun would dry most of the moisture
from the walls. Such was the way of people in towns like this; they
knew the weather and knew how to exist with it.

They weren't the only ones in Atlantea that day however, and two of
the people that had to put up with the cold and the rain were not
exactly enjoying it. Only one of them had the bravado to express this
dislike in no uncertain terms. He was a young pup of a soldier, barely
out of his boyhood phase and fresh from the proving grounds. He was
even younger than their Captain, which worried the older and more
experienced man a great deal. It meant that the Church had sent out
this team with only the youngest and greenest Dragoons it could. He
could understand their reasoning, there were only four fugitives and
the Magi was young and inexperienced herself. Still, they probably
hadn't foreseen the set of circumstances they would run into her.

No, check that, they definitely hadn't foreseen the set of
circumstances that Cheney was witness to in this town. If they had
they would have sent a regiment, nay, an army of Dragoons. At the very
least, they would not have sent a bunch of raw recruits, half of which
were missing, including the Captain.

"...I still say we should head back to Tienne and report this..." the
green youth behind him stated with a tone of petulance in his voice
that Cheney found unbefitting in a Dragoon. Not that Cheney would
dress him up for it; first off he didn't outrank the child (due more
to personal choice than lack of any opportunity to rise in the ranks)
and secondly it would only make matters worse. Petulance, if
chastised tended to just internalize itself and work into full blown
resentment. That was fine when the resentment was toward the drill
sergeant or the officers, but not your comrades-in-arms... that lead
to mistakes on the battlefield.

"It will take nearly a week to get to Tienne and back with any amount
of speed," Cheney instead explained patiently as he turned the corner
away from the docks and put his back to the wind. He clenched his hood
with one hand and drew it back a bit so it wouldn't obscure his eyes.
"By that time the Captain could be dead. Also I doubt we'd get far
from the city."

"Nobody would dare to block the Dragoons!"

"Really?" Cheney said a little curtly. "Then I suppose the Captain
and the others are just off frolicking with some morality impaired
womenfolk in need of education?"

The youth flushed, his florid face coming alive with a mix of
indignation and embarrassment. At least he wasn't likely to whine for
another few minutes. Cheney silently wondered how the boy had managed
to evade being scooped up by whatever had lifted the other Dragoons
from the town, without a trace as far as he could tell. He and about
five others had arrived back at the White Gull Inn shortly after
midnight. Seeing that the Captain not only wasn't there, but that the
innkeeper swore he had never even seen anyone matching that
description, Cheney had made a few orders and gotten the Dragoons out
of there. Sometimes his old instincts acted up and he listened to
them.

Cheney left the other Dragoons in a private place he knew of
personally and had gone back to the inn, in a less direct manner.
Seeing no one else there he had searched the local garrison and
several other likely locations throughout town, and saw nothing he
liked. So it was that the next morning he had declared the Captain
missing and sent one of the more experienced Dragoons (this one was at
least twenty) back to Tienne with a message. Cheney had then broken
the group up into squads and ordered them to search the city... but
unobtrusively. In cloaks and with hooded eyes, not with burnished
armor and the gilded Tri-fan. Cheney had even taken the greenest
recruit with himself, an act he was beginning to regret, to try and
insure he didn't disappear.

"What the..." his partners muted gasp snapped Cheney out of his
reverie and the soldier casually turned to glance at what the boy was
staring at. He then grabbed the youth and pulled him behind a stack of
crates piled haphazardly next to a warehouse. What he saw coming down
the street caused the hair on the back of his next to rise and his
heart to start beating in an unhealthy manner. It was a globe of
light, about a handspan wide and dull, like a candle inside paper
screen. It moved over the street with no visible means of propulsion,
levitating across the broken cobblestones at a hieght of two meters.
Nobody else in the street paid it any heed whatsoever; one man even
looked straight at it but his eyes scanned right past as if he had
seen nothing more interesting or unusual than a rusty bucket. Cheney
held his breath and was pleased to note that his partner did the same
until it was past them and out of sight between the buildings.

"What was that?" the boy asked, fingering the hilt of the short sword
under his cloak.

"A Seeker," Cheney said with the calm ease of the scholar.

"A what?"

"It is magic," Cheney explained as he looked around the street. "To be
more specific one of the spells of Clairmancy; and a very powerful one
too. It creates one of those lightballs we just saw and sends them out
after... well, anyone. It will travel across the whole world to get to
them if it has to, and no physical force can stop it. Once it finds
them it informs the caster of the exact location of the target, which
can be lethal. I remember tales of the War, when the Manakyr used them
to find the generals of the armies and wipe them out with surgical
strikes. Nasty stuff."

"Then there -are- Magi here..." the boy said the word "Magi" as if
trying to rid his mouth of some awful poison.

"Worse than that," Cheney carefully moved out of the crates and onto
the street again. He began up the streets the Seeker had disappeared
down and kept his stride easy and natural, nothing you would notice if
you looked. His partner took a few moments to catch up and the more
experienced soldier gracefully waited before continuing. "Did you
notice anything unusual about the way that people reacted to that?"

"Uhh..." the boy stroked his bare cheeks in a nervous manner. "Not
really, they didn't really do anything at all..."

"Exactly," Cheney said with restrained triumph. "They didn't react at
ALL. That means either one of two things; either they are so used to
it that seeing one is commonplace, or they are enchanted to ignore
it."

"Either way," the youth said quietly, "that isn't good for us is it."

"No," Cheney agreed.

"So what do we do now?"

"Why, we follow it of course."

"You said what now?"

"Think boy," he hid a grin, he was beginning to feel that old fire
burning again. "It wasn't after us, it would have spotted us I know
that. But it is after someone, and once it finds them then something
happens, and that something is likely to lead us back to who was
responsible. I'd lay even money that whoever that is, they're also
involved in the captain's disappearance."

"If you say so..." Cheney heard the unconscious "sir" that was almost
appended to that and grimaced. The last thing he wanted was a position
of authority. If his little secret got out then there would be no
going back for him after that.

***

Russa was the country farthest north on the continent and was
seperated from the warmer climed Church State of Tienne by the Harshak
mountains. The mountains themselves started in the far south at La
Verde and twisted like a great serpent to the northwest, going north
of Tienne and finally tapering off in the western bluffs. To the
southeast Russa boasted the largest forest in the world (or so they
claimed). Virtually untouched by human hands and said to be inhabited
by the Moogles, faeries and the near-mythic Sidhe, those ancient
beings who had passed the knowledge of Geomancy unto their human
counterparts, though no one could confirm that for sure. Sidhe were
considered fantasy tales and the last recorded sighting was before the
Manakyr were defeated. The west was more heavily populated, in
comparison that was. The mountains gave way to the steppes and the
steppes to the long endless tracks of snow-covered waste that the word
Russa conjured up in most minds of those who lived in the kingdoms of
the south. Most of the population was clustered in towns and cities in
and around the mountains near the southern borders. Beyond that lay
sparse villages that serviced the caravan routes between here and Yahl
Russa, the capital and home of Russa's lifeblood, the Starsilver mine.

No metal was quite as good as Starsilver. It was said that the large
round hill that it was mined from was really a mountain that had
fallen from the sky almost four thousand years ago, but that was
likely a fiction of people who took the romantic name too seriously.
Starsilver was called what it was because of its silver finish that,
in its purest form, seemed to glitter and shimmer like all the
starry universe was hidden within it. No physical force known to man
could break Starsilver and even the most potent magic could barely
dent or scratch it. Only highly trained Alchemists and Geomancers
working hand in hand could mold the rare mineral into tools and
weapons or, more commonly, mix it with lesser metals to form pliable
alloys such as that used in the construction of Boost Armor.

Davin was relaying all of this information as the foursome hiked down
a steep and treacherous trail several miles off the beaten path. They
had decided to take this path after a long hour of intense debate.
Finally the idea that they might run into Dragoon's along the North
Caravan Trail that cut through the fertile valleys just south of
Anchal and formed the major safe inroads to Russa that didn't go all
the way south to La Verde first had convinced everyone that a little
of the beaten trail hiking was a good idea. Davin really hoped that
they wouldn't regret it; they didn't have much cold weather survival
gear on them and the weather could turn nasty in a heartbeat up here
as he knew from bitter experience.

Syeira was ranging ahead farther below. Her nimble legs carried her
down the trail with an ease the others often found maddening and she
tended to flaunt this to them at every opportunity. Of course, they
could usually mollify themselves by remembering the "incident" where
she had mistaken a grazing mountain goat's horns for an impressively
narrow place from which to be seen scanning the countryside. Syeira
was the only one uninterested in Davin's storytelling, saying he
wasn't telling her anything she didn't already know anyway and had
skipped ahead.

The other two were rapt. Mika of course was explainable, she tended to
listen to every word that spilled out of Davin's mouth as if one of
the Gods themselves were prophesying through him. That and she was
always a sucker for a good story, perhaps her one greatest
weakness. Marcine on the other hand was rapt for a whole different set
of reasons.

"Davin," she interrupted him just as he was getting to the part about
the royal court of Russa. He turned his eyes to her and broke off, a
quizzical expression on his face. "Have you ever considered a career
as a storyteller."

"Not much call for that!" Davin laughed heartily and patted his sword.

"You'd be surprised," she said. "But I swear listening to you is
almost entrancing. I could almost smell that aroma you were describing
Yahl Russa as having. You have a gift; I've listened to a lot of
talentless minstrels and bards in my time to be able to tell the
difference. I'd even say you're better at this than you are at
swordplay or Geomancy!"

Davin blushed and looked down at his feet, going out of his way to
carefully walk around a few oversized pebbles in the path. "I don't
think so Marcine," Davin said with a wistful tone. "I've just actually
seen most of these places while most Bards never roam out of their
country and thus are repeating things second or third hand at best."

"Davin I really..."

"I'm really not very good Marcine," Davin said abruptly. "I'm a
fighter, an adventurer, a doer. I'm not a poet."

"Yeah," Mika said with a serious little nod. "Davin is a hero,
wandering the world and bringing anyone who stands before him down.
He's gonna find my parents and his and we're gonna see the world!"

"If that's what you really want Davin," Marcine let it go as they came
to the end of the narrow trail and the start of a broad valley leading
west. Syeira was waiting for them there, perched on a boulder like a
sunning mountain lion.

"So where does this trail of yours take us anyway?" the thief asked
languidly.

"It comes out just north of Voden," Davin explained.

"And what then?"

"Then we travel cross-country up to Yahl Russa."

"Yahl Russa?" Marcine said with some alarm. "But Davin, that's the
capital! If any place is likely to be dangerous then that's it."

"True," Davin said and sat down lightly on a chair-high stone nearby.
Mika took this as an excuse and sat cross-legged near him. Marcine
began to realize just how much her legs were complaining and decided
to rest them herself so she sat up against the boulder Syeira had
claimed. "I've been thinking about it ever since we left Achal,
actually since before then, back in the ghost house."

Syeira glared at Mika who only stuck her tongue out at her in
response..

"What about?"

"Well," Davin said and absently played with the hilt of his curved
blade as they all looked on expectantly. Geez, why did they all expect
HIM to be the leader here? Oh well, buck up and take it Davin. "I was
thinking, we could probably hide out in the forests like Syeira
suggested, or even find some small village out there on the snowplains
or steppes and never so much as -see- a Dragoon... but that won't do
us any good."

"What do you mean?" Mika asked.

Davin looked at Marcine before speaking next and everyone could tell
he was choosing his words carefully. "We weren't taught much at the
Academy about True Magik, just that it was something not to ask too
much about. But now I'm not so sure about that. I think we have to
learn as much as we can about magic, about the real story behind it
and try to find some way to deal with that information. Magic isn't
evil and we need to learn as much as we can about it, don't you
think?"

"Sounds reasonable," Syeira yawned audibly and slid from the boulder.

"Thank you," Marcine added sincerely. Ever since the encounter at the
house, Davin had noted a drastic improvement in her mood and found
that he liked her even more when she wasn't so concerned with her
sins, real or imagined.

"What does that have to do with Yahl Russa?"

"I know a guy who works there," Davin said and twitched the sword
again. "He graduated with me from the Mystic Academy as a Geomancer
and got a job refining Starsilver up there. That isn't the real reason
he went there however. He went there because up there the Church isn't
exactly what you'd call overwhelming..." Davin grimaced, "And that
meant it would be easier for him to research magic."

"He's a Heretic?" Marcine said with some concern in her voice.

"Don't forget that both you and I are just as much heretics," Syeira
pointed out. Davin blinked at that and then sighed. He had honestly
forgotten about Syeira's magical ability.

"He never studied it to learn how to use it," Davin explained hastily.
"He just studied the history of it, the reality of magic use in the
world, the history of the Manakyr and so on. Technically what he's
doing isn't a sin according to Dogma but its close enough that he
didn't want to be anywhere near real religious fanatics."

"So you think he could help us find out about magic?"

"If not, he probably knows someone, or something, which can."

"Sounds like a plan!" Mika acknowledged gladly. "So what are we all
sitting around for? It's time to get moving!"

Everyone groaned slightly as they began to trek up the valley towards
their far distant destination.

"Are we there yet?"

***

High overhead, not hidden at all and standing out on a bluff with his
cloak flapping dramatically about him in such a manner that if any of
them had but thought to look upward they could not have missed him,
was a man. But none of them did think to look upward and thus they did
not see him. Nor did they see him smile thinly and stroke the small
lizard that was curled over his shoulder. Nor did they hear the rustle
of scales on rock that announced the presence of the lizards brother
as it slunk along behind them.

"So, it is to Yahl Russa to which thou travelest Heretics?" they did
not hear him say. "But thou shalt never visit thine dark contact to
the shady underworld. Long before then thou shalt face the Citizen's
justice, oh yes, indeed. At my very hands, and the hands of some small
companions, thou shall inherit the wind."

They did not see him stalk coldly from the bluff and start down the
path behind them, his eyes distant, only half-focused on what he was
doing. They did not see his feet snag and his legs fly out from under
him or hear his plaintive cries and he tumbled down the path into the
vale below. Although, sometime later, it would have pleased them
greatly if they had.

***

Rhyl Valecrest was a fine soldier. He had been born to a peasant
family, but had not grown up poor. His father was an important man, he
owned and ran the steamcar factory that supplied Tienne with its
wondrous transportation system. His family had not grown up having to
go hungry and let the fires in their house burn low so as to conserve
wood like he had. Still he had not allowed his children to grow soft.
The old man had five sons and two daughters and he made all of them
earn their keep.

Rhyl had been the runt of the litter, third eldest but physically
weakest, he had been forced to learn to rely on his wits and speed for
most of his life. He had known from a young age that he would not
inherit anything worth mentioning from his father's fortune so he had
sought out other opportunities. His father hated magic, and all things
related so he had not joined the Mystic Academy. That had left him
with two options: the army, and the Church.

At first it seemed likely that Rhyl would enter the clergy like his
youngest sister. But a fortunate happenstance had lead him to pull a
sword on a band of outlaws that had attacked him and his mother in
transit between Tienne and Erihs. He had killed four of the eight
attackers by the time a squad of Dragoons had arrived from the local
garrison. Impressed the garrison Commander had encouraged him to
enlist. Rhyl had leapt at the chance.

Rhyl proved himself to be an apt student and an able fighter. While
not physically powerful, he more than made up for it in his ability to
second guess his opponents and plan strategy and tactics. He took to
the special equipment of the Dragoon's like it was second nature and
even tutored many of his fellow students in the use of the recent
innovations in technology he was familiar with from his father's
workshop. He also knew how to get others to trust and listen to him,
how to solve problems without resorting to violence and how not to
stick his nose where it didn't belong.

His father was now very proud of his son and Rhyl had learned that he
and Armand Cavanaugh, -the- Armand Cavanaugh, had met a few weeks back
shortly after Rhyl earned his wings. Rhyl (correctly) believed that he
was on the fast track to promotion and that he would soon end up a
member of the officer corps, rising as high as his wit and insight
would let him. This was just a proving mission to him, grunt work.
They were sending him out to see how he fared in the field and he had
no intention of letting them down. He had kept his cool when he'd
learned of the Captain's disappearance and listened to old Cheney's
(even if he wasn't officially a Dragoon anymore) advice. Now he was on
his way back to Tienne with an important dispatch on exactly how real
and how invasive the magical -infestation- of Atlantea was.

He was not about to fail in his mission. Rhyl rode a fast horse and
wore his full Boost Armor, his naginata strapped to his saddle in such
a way that a snap of his wrist and it would be in his hands and ready
for battle. He was second only to the Captain among his age group when
it came to air jousting and was rumored to be his equal or better in
swordplay. He was trained by the greatest military institution in the
world, an expert on dealing with enemies armed with both sword and
sorcery. He was the brightest of a new generation in a proud tradition
extending back two thousand years.

His opponent was a man in a faceless mask. He didn't stand a chance.

Siegvin pushed the slumped over body of the young Dragoon from his
horse and firmly gripped the reins in his free hand. He quieted the
animal with preternatural ease and then knelt to examine the saddle,
making sure he had not damaged it in his attack. Satisfied that his
job had been perfect Siegvin vaulted onto the horse and turned it back
in the direction it had come. With only a little prodding the animal
would return to where it had come from and Siegvin would be back on
the trail of the witch and her little friends. Especially that other
girl, oh yes, he had something special in mind for her.

With a harsh command he send the horse pounding down the trail back
towards Atlantea. Forgotten in the road behind him, Rhyl Valecrest lay
in a pool of his own thickening blood. He was a good soldier.

***

Kyle's bloodlust had long since lost most of its edge. There was only
so long one could run on adrenaline and rage until it began to wear
out on you. Now it was a torture to even move his feet down the hall,
much less raise his sword to slay the enemies that seemed to boil out
of every crack in the stonework when he wasn't looking. It was a good
thing that most of the cultists were so poorly skilled at fighting,
and armed only with daggers or short staves. Still he bore the marks
of underestimating his enemy, already a fresh burn on his shoulder
from a flame spell was beginning to itch with the first signs of
returning feeling, and he had nearly lost it entirely when that
psychomancer had hazed his comprehension. Martin had brought him out
of that by rapping him smartly with his sword hilt, like they taught
to every Dragoon.

Martin himself was a different figure. He wasn't as tired as Kyle, but
he was much more injured. Two great red welts on his chest were mute
testimony to the savagery of the Bolt spell that had nearly taken him
out of action. It was a good thing the boy had carried a potion on him
or Kyle would have had to carry him out of the labyrinth.

Both of them stood in a corridor, enjoying a few moments of peace as
the bodies of their latest opponents slowly cooled on the hard stone a
few feet away.

"Maybe that was the last of them sir," Martin said hopefully between
deep breaths. Kyle didn't trust himself to speak for a few moments and
Martin took the pause as incentive to continue. "There can only be so
many of them sir, and we've gone through so many so far..."

"But they just keep coming," Kyle snarled. "And there is no end to
this damnable labyrinth!" He stood up, the rage boiling in his veins
again. "Come out damn you! Show yourself and face me heretic!" But
there was no answer, there had been none ever since his brief contact
with the master of this crypt a few hours ago. Hours? Had he really
been running and fighting and killing for that long? Without end, it
was all without end. "Dammit!" he cursed. The last thing he needed to
do was lose hope. That was as good as falling on your sword,
especially against Magi. They could -smell- it when you lost hope, and
that was when they pounced.

(Could his sister do that too?)

"What I don't understand sir," Martin was saying, "Is why we haven't
met any of the others."

"The others..." Kyle blinked slowly, he was so tired even thinking
felt like pushing his way through a thick fog. Yes, it was strange
that they had encountered none of his other men. They had looked
through every room in the place and met nothing but more black-clad
cultists, and violence and death. "Well," he reasoned slowly, "there
are three possible explanations. Either this place is so huge that
they are all spread out far from where we were held."

"Unlikely sir," Martin replied.

"I agree," Kyle nodded. "Or maybe... maybe nobody else was captured
but us."

"In which case they might be looking for us?" Martin asked and it
stung Kyle straight to the heart to see the pure radiant hope that
were held in them.

(So much like Marcine's...)

He shook his head, afraid to dispel that faint hope. "Don't rely on
others too heavily. We have no idea where we are or how long we were
unconscious. We could be half the continent away and it could be weeks
later..."

"Doesn't add up sir," Martin said with quiet conviction.

"Maybe you're right..." Kyle conceded. "The last possibility is that
the others are all dead and we are the last."

(If I die here, will Marcine ever know?)

"No!" Martin's voice was raspy and full of conviction. "It can't be
sir! I mean, why them and not us..."

"I..."

"Sir!"

Kyle reacted, moving out of the way as the blast of burning air melted
a pool into the stone where he had been standing. He looked down the
corridor and saw that five robed figures stood preparing their magic
to wield against

(you, like Marcine will do against you someday)

(STOP IT! STOP IT! STOP THINKING ABOUT HER!)

them and Kyle felt the world slip away as it became only him and his
opponents. "Charge!" he vaguely remembered yelling and then it was
back to the running, the fighting and the killing.

***

They caught up to the Seeker minutes later and blended into the flow
of the crowd as the followed it on its journey. They always stayed a
block back, mindful of the fact that just maybe the thing could sense
them and warn whatever malicious intellect guided it of their
presence. Then maybe it would have a new target.

It didn't take long for them to find out who its target had been. The
Seeker entered one of the marketplaces and came up to two figures
cloaked and hooded against the rain, who seemed to be idly sitting
on the stoop of a local alehouse and nursing cups of brew. Cheney
recognized them instantly, Torrance and Pheney, two of the grunts from
his unit (Captain -Kyle's-, you mean) he hastily amended. They nearly
leapt five feet into the air when it stopped in front of them. Both of
them seemed startled and confused by the orb's presence. He could see
hands going to hidden swords.

Then out of the corner of his eye he caught it. A woman, likely a
housemaid out doing her shopping, stopped and went stiff, like a
statue. She looked at the man behind the counter whom she had been
haggling with not moments before and he calmly handed her a small vial
which she palmed. The housemaid turned and walked slowly,
nonchalantly, towards the two disguised Dragoons. A cold lump formed
in his stomach as one of his suspicions was all but confirmed.

"Tor..." Cheney's hand slapped over the novice's mouth with an audible
smack. It was evident from where he was looking that the boy had
followed his elder's eyes and seen the exchange. Bright boy, he could
go far... if he lived to get out of this town. Cheney signaled the
boy to be silent and then lowered his hand. "What are you doing, we
have to warn them!" the youth's voice was harsh and insistent, but
low, which was good.

"No," Cheney said in his suggestive (commanding) voice. "We have to
let this play out. If we interfere now all we do is reveal the fact
that we are on to them and accomplish nothing."

"But..."

"Do you want to try and fight your way through the entire town?"

The novice's eyes widened as the implications of that question hit him
like a Dragoon Dive. "You don't mean they're all heretics?"

"No," Cheney said softly, "I don't think so... they're... entranced.
Controlled."

"The entire town?"

"I've seen it before," Cheney said with bitter remembrance. "Not on
such a scale but certainly I've seen it before. What we are probably
dealing with is a very strong Psychomancer, he entrances the entire
town and when people show up asking too many questions he calmly
captures them, wipes their memories or creates false ones and sends
them on their way. No muss, no fuss."

"May the Gods fortify my heart," the novice muttered. Cheney only
grunted. He didn't like leaving two of (his men) Captain Kyle's men
out there for whatever happened. If they were killed it would be his
fault and leaving them went against everything he had ever been
taught... by both his orders.

While they had been talking, the woman had made her way over to the
two Dragoons. She moved so artfully and slowly through the meager
crowd in the slowly tapering rain that they didn't notice her until it
was too late, their attention focused on the Seeker and its potential
threat. By then she had lifted her hand and from it a fine spray
seemed to emit. The two Dragoon's yelled, their hands coming free with
swords drawn and then they slowed, dizziness overtook them one at a
time and before Cheney could count to three they were unconscious.

"Magic!" the novice (who Cheney was too proud to admit he had
forgotten the name of...) hissed.

"No," Cheney corrected, "Alchemy, that's a spray mister in her hand.
She drugged them. I don't know of any lethal toxins delivered that
way..." The words "don't know" rang in his ears long after he trailed
off.

The two watched as four people detached from the crowd, scooping up
the bodies and began to move them away. The woman paused only to pick
up their swords before following. Nobody else in the marketplace so
much as glanced, much less thought to take interest. The glowing shape
of the Seeker winked out as if someone had popped it like a soap
bubble.

"What now?"

"You need to ask?"

"We follow?"

"Now you're learning."

***

They ran into a nest of monsters shortly before dark. They poured out
of a small cave and slithered down the short slope into the midst of
their party. They were huge snakes, easily ten feet long with bodies a
foot thick in the middle and giant hooded cobra heads. The battle was
short and chaotic, with the creatures arriving practically in their
midst the group had no chance to mount an organized defense. The
skirmish was long and exhausting, and left several craters in the
countryside from the blasts of magical and alchemical explosions.
Still luck was with them and Davin and Syeira managed to chase the
creatures back into the cave they had come from before Mika collapsed
the whole thing with explosives. Davin had taken only a small bite on
his leg from the incident.

As they moved on they kept a closer eye on their surroundings and, by
mutual unspoken consent, none of them went far from the others. A
somber mood had been cast over their trek by the unexpected monster
attack and the party traveled in silence until they came to a small
ravine where they made camp for the night. Syeira built a small fire
with some twigs and bushes she had gathered and Mika officiously drove
everyone from the fire so she could cook them dinner.

Marcine sat near the back of the ravine, her hands running over the
two polished stones, one white, one blue, that she carried with her.
She really wished she had had more time to gather more of the Guardian
Eggs before they had caught her. They had at least three others back
at the libraries of Tienne but she knew those were beyond her reach,
probably forever. Still there was something about the Eggs that
fascinated her, had fascinated her ever since she had first seen them
on display when she was but a small child, in the private collections
near the back of the monastery, where no normal person was allowd to
go. Calling the power of the Guardian inside was like no other magic.
Magic itself was draining, it felt like wrestling with the universe.
The Calling was different, like embracing a warm light and letting it
fill you. It was pleasant.

She looked up an across their campsite to Davin, who was staying
downwind of Mika's cookfire as much as possible in the confined space.
His back was straight and he had his face tilted up to the slowly
emerging stars, his face closed in an expression of quiet peace.
Marcine thought she saw a faint reddish tinge to it and sweat rolling
down his brow but couldn't be sure in the flickering half-light. His
posture was relaxed, eased. She placed the Eggs in her hat and stood
up to walk over to him, this strange knight in shining armor she
hardly knew.

"What are you doing?"

"Checking the weather..." he said, "The spirits say it's likely to
rain heavy tomorrow... I'm trying to convince them to go rain
somewhere else for a while."

Marcine's eyes widened slightly. "Can you really do that? Change the
very weather?"

"If the Spirits want to, yes." Davin lowered his head and opened his
eyes (were they bloodshot?) to look at her. "Unfortunately, as I just
proved to myself, weather spirits are the most bullheaded of the whole
bunch. Once they have it in their mind to start a storm or something
else, nothing short of the Three Gods can convince them not to. It's
like reasoning with a Behemoth!" He laughed but Marcine noticed there
was a faint catch in his voice. He swayed a bit where he stood, almost
as if in a drunken stupor.

"Davin are you alright?" she asked, worry suddenly filling her voice.

"I'm fine..." he said and put his hand to his head. "Just need a
little rest..."

He collapsed, his legs folding underneath him like reeds. Marcine
tried to catch him but he was so heavy he drove her to her knees. His
eyes were unfocused, both of them staring of in separate directions,
neither of which was at her. His entire body went limp and his head
lolled forward to rest on her shoulder. Even through the fabric of the
traveling tunic they had picked up for her in Achal she could feel
the clammy sweat on his face. She realized when Syeira pulled him off
her that she had been yelling his name and trying to shake him back to
consciousness. Marcine reached for him again but the nimble thief
pulled him away and pushed her back with her free hand. She laid
Davin out on the rock and calmly tested his forehead with the back of
her hand.

"Poison," she announced shortly. Marcine felt her heart sink slightly.
"Damn," Syeira muttered, "We should have known to expect something
like this after those snakes hit us. If we had've caught it early we
could have done more but now its had time to circulate through his
whole bloodstream."

"What can we do?" Marcine was surprised at how calm her voice was.

"Girl!" Syeira called to Mika, "Do you have anything in your bag of
tricks for this?"

"Hmpf," Mika said as she kneeled next to Davin an uncorked a small
glass vial filled with a greenish liquid. "What sort of Alchemist
would I be if I didn't know who to mix up Antidotes? Now open his
mouth."

Syeira obligingly squeezed her fingers over Davin's nose, forcing him
to open his mouth if he wanted to breath. Mika poured the vile looking
concoction down Davin's throat and slammed his mouth closed after she
was finished. Davin coughed, obviously trying to up the stuff but had
no recourse and was forced to swallow it. Davin seemed to relax after
that and his eyes closed. Shortly after that he began to snore softly.

"How long does that stuff take to work?" Syeira asked.

"Depends," Mika shrugged, "It will clean out his system, burn the
poison out. But it takes longer if the poison has had more chance to
settle in. A good standard of measure is twice as long since he was
infected."

"That's going to be all night," Marcine sighed.

"We weren't going anywhere until daybreak anyway."

"Yeah," Marcine nodded, "But Davin said there was going to be heavy
rain tomorrow and I got the impression he wanted to leave early..."

"Looks like that is out," Mika informed them prissily.

"Hey," Syeira turned on Marcine. "Why don't you just use magic to
flush it out of his system?"

"I can't," Marcine said with evident guilt. "I used up all my energy
in that battle, I couldn't cast Esuna, or anything else, until I got
enough rest to replenish my reserves. If I tried to cast the magic
without the energy it could backfire and do more harm then good."

"Good thing -I- don't have to worry about that," Mika stuck her tongue
out at the older girl. "As long as I have access to my ingredients I
can whip up anything I want."

"Humpf," Syeira said and crossed her arms. "He never said anything
about backfiring when you ran out of energy..."

"He?"

"Uh," Syeira suddenly sweated and waved her hands nervously at them.
"Slip of the tongue, its nothing, ignore it!"

Marcine gave Syeira a suspicious look but said nothing.

"Okay," Mika piped up into the uncomfortable silence that followed.
"Who here wants to try this first?" She scooped out some of the stew
she had been cooking with a bowl and offered it up. It looked slightly
less noxious than her Antidote. Syeira and Marcine exchanged glances
across the fire and both wondered if falling asleep was a good idea
now.

***

Kyle ran his opponent through, his sword emerging form the back of his
opponent like some hideous plant. He tried to back up and pull his
sword free but the man folded up around it, his head banging against
Kyle's shoulder. Grunting with the effort Kyle spun with the body
attached and watched as a swarm of magical, razor sharp ice ripped
into the back of his human shield. Then Martin was there, his own
sword slashing across the magic-users back and causing the man to
shriek. Kyle took the time to heave his body and kick the cultist off
his blade. He need not have hurried as Martin was more than a match
for the man in close quarters, and once that man feel, there seemed no
other attackers left in the room.

The two took the precious break to catch their breath and take stock
of the situation. Kyle couldn't even remember how long he had been
fighting now, or how many of the cultists he had killed. At least
enough to account for every man, woman and child in Atlantea he would
wager, if he were a wagering man. Martin was in considerably worse
shape then him by now, his clothes torn and dried blood (from him and
his enemies) coating every inch of exposed flesh. His eyes had a
distant, almost hunted look to them that Kyle was afraid he would see
in his own face if he looked in a mirror.

"This is ridiculous!" Martin suddenly roared. Kyle looked at him more
closely and saw that he was nudging the hood of his latest kill with
his foot. "I don't believe it!"

"Don't believe what?" Kyle said and pulled his legs after him to
approach.

"This man is dead!" he said and pointed his shaking sword at the body
on the floor.

"That's fairly obvious private," Kyle said carefully and hoped he
wasn't seeing Martin cracking up. That would be very bad, all things
considered.

"No," Martian shook his head. "You don't understand, I killed him...
three hours ago!"

"What?"

"This man," Martin nudged the corpse with his boot. "I decapitated him
back in that fight at the aqueduct. I remember his face because after
the head fell down I could swear it was staring at me!"

Kyle looked down at the man Martin was so upset over and thought he
did seem familiar, but that could have been a trick of the weariness
he was feeling. (Why was it so hard to think straight?) He didn't see
any signs of any other wounds but the one Martin had inflicted in the
recent skirmish. Then again...

"Okay," Kyle said in his most disciplined voice. "Lets try to think
about this logically. Lay out all our options and figure out a
solution..." He paused as something came to him. "Barricade the doors
with those bookshelves." He indicated the furniture around the room.

"I thought you said it wasn't a good idea to fort up against Magi?"

"It isn't," Kyle said, "But every time we begin to think our way
through this we get attacked and I want some breathing space."

It took them only a few minutes of backbreaking labor to block the
doors with several bookcases. Kyle wasn't at all happy with locking
himself in a small confined space while Magi hunted them down like

(Like you plan on hunting down Marcine.)

dogs. He shook his head, trying to clear the fog from it and think
straight. Ever since he had started out this day he hadn't really had
a chance to think, and it was very hard to do so for some reason.

"Okay," Kyle began. "What are the possible ways this man could
resemble a man you killed three hours ago?"

"Resurrection?"

Kyle stomach went cold as he remembered the tales of the Phoenix he
had been taught by his father, but he kept his expression outwardly
calm. "Magic can't do that," he said in a voice more meant to convince
himself then convince Martin. The very idea of resurrection was
repugnant to him. He could think of no greater sin against all three
of the Gods. Unconsciously his hand went to his tri-fan pin.

"Twins?" Martin offered.

"Possible," Kyle conceded, "but hardly likely..." He looked around.
"Wait, does this room seem familiar?"

"It does sir," Martin closed his eyes for a few moments and then
snapped them open. "Yes, this is that room where you started talking
to yourself shortly after you arrived!"

"What?"

"Exact same sir," he knelt by a shelf, "I even recognize the titles on
some of these books."

"But that would mean we've been going around in circles..." he paused
as something else occurred to him. "We destroyed that room. Lit fire
to the books before leaving it didn't we?"

"Yes, sir."

Kyle's head felt like it was throbbing visible. He felt like someone
was driving steamcars through his ear canals and smashing his forehead
with GoLEMs. It was so damn hard to think...

"Sir!" Martin pointed and Kyle saw a bolt of fire burn away one of
their makeshift barricades. (Dammit! I need more time to think this
through!) He readied his sword and...

His sword, who in their right mind left prisoners within easy reach of
their weapons? Even unconscious prisoners?

Then it was too late to think.

***

The cathedral was the oldest in the world. It dated back from before
the time of the Manakyr when the Church was still in its infancy. It
was nowhere near as magnificent as the on in Tienne, nor as large as
most of the cathedrals of the world. In fact, it was only two stories,
three if you counted the belltower. The architecture was archaic and
had been rebuilt numerous times throughout the buildings long history.
There was probably not an original stone left in the whole thing from
the time it was born. Except in the crypt perhaps.

Cheney eyed it like one might eye a besieged castle, his trained eye
going over every nock and cranny in search of weaknesses and flaws in
the design. He found many, and had figured out a way to get the two of
them in without being noticed. Still he hesitated, it felt strange to
be contemplating the storming of a church. Even so, the two
unconscious Dragoons had been hauled into the building, which meant
that whoever they were after was within. It also meant that whoever
they were after had a perverse sense of humor. That could work either
for or against them in the long run.

"Do we warn the others?"

"No," Cheney said. "We risk being found out if we do that. Follow me,
we're going inside. Keep your wits about you."

"Aye sir."

Cheney winced but said nothing. At least it had stopped raining.

***

It was indeed raining the next morning when they woke up. Thankfully
none of them were soaked, mainly because Syeira had been thoughtful
enough to anchor their tent canvas over their heads into a sort of
communal shelter. The sun was barely visible through the oppressive
screen of clouds overhead. That, combined with yesterdays minor crisis
had served to put them all in a sour mood. Marcine especially wasn't
sure if she liked the idea of marching through the mountains in this.
At least she was feeling refreshed.

Thankfully Davin was awake again, and as fiercely cheerful as ever. He
had commented that the incident had let him get his first decent
nights sleep in weeks and let the whole matter rest after that. He was
still obviously recovering from the way he moved slower and more
carefully this morning while helping Mika pack up for their trip.
Still he tried to cheer everyone up by recounting his misadventures
in La Verde while looking for any clues as to the locations of Mika's
parents or his own.

Thus it was some minutes before they noticed the figure that leapt
from high overhead and landed in front of the entrance to their
campsite. This, to the figure, was NOT acceptable.

"Ho heretics and enemies of humanity! Quail and tremble in thine boots
at this moment!"

Everyone turned to look at the man who had spoken to them in some
surprise. He would have cut a dashing and striking figure, in his
blood-red cape with his needle-sharp rapier and midnight dark hair, if
he had not been so thoroughly soaked to the bone that his cape hung
more like blanket and his hair fell over his face like that of a
sheep dog. Once he noticed he had their attention he flourished his
rapier and smirked, striking a pose he had spent at least three hours
mastering last night once they had set up camp.

"What..."

"Quiet witch!"

"Hey," Mika protested, "I am not a witch! She's the witch!" She
pointed at Marcine.

"I said quiet!" the man roared. "Listen well heretics, for these are
the last words thou shall ever hear. I have come to end thine
villainy, in the name of the Citizen's justice I shall not suffer a
witch to live. Yet, if thou dost surrender now I shall spare thee the
agony of embarrassment when my unmatched might smites thee like the
insects thou art."

"Pal," Davin said and stepped forward with his hand on the hilt of his
sword. "I think you have a problem with math. There are four of us and
one of you, I think that means you are outnumbered."

"Outnumbered dost thou thinketh?" He grinned, a nasty little grin,
that of someone he knew something others didn't and was very pleased
with himself for it. "Then allow me to even the odds!" He stuck his
fingers to his lips and whistled sharply, a strange piercing sound.
The others paused, taken slightly back by this strange behavior. Then
they saw them, emerging from beyond the edges of the valley. They
floated across the landscape, large balls of reddish gas, like thick
viscous air. The tops of their bodies seemed to flicker and shift in
the rain, giving the impression of a bonfire and from straight on one
could almost make out... faces? Like malicious human faces. There were
six in all, each creature nearly as large as a man.

"Bombs!" Syeira gasped.

"What?" Mika asked.

"Monsters," Davin explained and drew his sword, a frown etching his
features into seriousness. "Dangerous ones, their made of some sort of
semisolid gas that if you damage too much explodes. Thus the name."

Marcine felt her heart beating faster as she stepped slightly behind
Davin and pulled the pitifully inadequate dagger she had picked up in
Achal out of its sheath. Mika was already reaching into her bag to
pull out some equipment for the fight.

"Heh," the man curled back his arm and gestured as the Bombs circled
around him to cut off the ravine. "I feel thou should at least know
the name of thine judge, jury and executioner. I am thine last and
greatest foe, Beastmaster Stine!"

"Beastmaster..." Davin said to himself as if that explained
everything.

"Attack!"

The Bombs came pouring into the narrow ravine they had used as their
campsite, so wide across they were forced to come in single file.
Davin backed up, not eager to unleash an explosion in such tight
quarters. The closest Bomb roared in some animal fury and flew at
Davin, its body distorting to form a gaping maw. Davin grunted and
parried the attack with his blade but was tossed back when a small
explosion accompanied the impact. He didn't lose his footing and was
only slightly scorched but seemed okay otherwise.

(If he wasn't still recovering from that poison!) Marcine thought.

"Eclipse at midnight," Syeira chanted in a steady, strong voice.
Marcine turned to see the thief spinning her arms and pointing at the
lead monster. "Shadows shallow sight, Blind!" Marcine felt the magic,
like somebody had stepped over her grave, and watched as a cloud of
black mist enveloped the head of the approaching Bomb. It screeched
and roared, a sound like a housefire that had run out of fuel and
charged... right into the wall. "Use Ice magic Marcine!" the thief
called out as she stepped past her and stood beside Davin. "It's the
only way to kill them without them blowing."

"I... understand," Marcine nodded and stepped back to give herself
room to cast the spell. She still felt a surge of guilt at using the
black magic but quelled that quickly by telling herself it was only
monsters, not people this time. Syeira and Davin dueled with the lead
Bomb, careful not to hit it too hard and always pushing it so that its
fellows couldn't get past it at the small group. The blinded monster
could only howl and strike at them ineffectually. She quickly chanted
the spell under her breath and with a cry of "Ice!" unleashed the
magic. She felt it before the spell took effect, and the air around
the Bomb became a flashing light as crystal shards tore into it from
all sides. The Bomb screeched and seemed to shrink under the assault
and then with an incongruous popping sound simply disappeared. The
other Bombs hesitated.

"What dost ye incompetent wretches wait for!" Stine roared. "Attack,
weaken these few so that I shall have the pleasure of dispatching them
at mine leisure."

"...lifegiving fall, gather the deluge... Waterball!" Davin swung his
sword and thrust on hand at the nearest Bomb. For a moment it seemed
as if nothing was going to happen, then the rain around the Bomb
seemed to bend inward, and the puddles on the ground below it
stretched up like taffy toward the monster. In a flash too fast too
follow the water had gathered into a ball of blue right in front of
the beast, which exploded and rained the monster with a wave of liquid
that flew through it to crack the rocks beyond. The Bomb again seemed
to shrink on itself and with a soft mew of pain popped out of
existence.

"Grr..." Stine growled and glared at them over the head of his
remaining pets. "Retreat, get out into the open you mindless
creatures!" The Bombs obeyed, moving much more quickly away from the
party then they had when approaching. They spread out around Stine and
formed a semicircle that still hedged the group in. "You fools should
have taken your death at the hands of my servants, now you must face
my might instead..." He held up his hand. "Matra Missile!"

Davin tried to shout a warning but it was too late, he dashed out of
the ravine, seconds ahead of the streaks that flew into it. The
explosion came from behind them, a blast wave that carried shattered
rock and debris ahead of it. The tent canvas overhead cracked and
flashed into the sky, the pitons holding it in place snapped like
toothpicks by the shockwave. The blast was funneled up the ravine like
a dambreak, picking up his three companions and sending them flying
out onto the harsh stone. Marcine collapsed to the ground, her back
screaming in agony. Syeira and Mika were in better shape, having been
further away from ground zero. Both were stunned by the blast however.
Only Davin, who rolled to his feet halfway to Stine was relatively
unhurt.

"Finish them!" Stine grinned and gestured with his rapier. Immediately
the Bomb's began in, moving with malicious purpose toward the Davin's
fallen comrades. Davin straightened and fought of a surge of dizziness
as the last of the poison in his system fought to bring him low. Stine
grinned at him and held up one hand so he could curl his fingers in a
come hither gesture. "Now ye face my final wrath boy," he said as
Davin began to stalk forward. "Ye and me, sword on sword and blade on
blade... a fight to the death, thine!"

"For that, I can't forgive you!" Davin roared and charged at Stine.
The two blades connected somewhere in the space between them and then
they were circling and striking and parrying blows. Finally Stine made
a mistake, his rapier made a parry that it wasn't meant to against
Davin's heavier blade and for a moment it was knocked aside. Then
Davin struck, spinning around his opponent and drawing the blade in a
graceful slash that whistled the air. He came to a rest standing
behind Stine, back to his opponent as Stine reached down and clutched
his side where a red line had broken through his clothes.

"You..." Stine grinned, "Made a mistake!" He spun and waved his arm at
Davin. "Shock!" Davin was in the process of spinning around to finish
Stine off when the attack struck. It formed around him like a
brilliant cloud, a vortex of pain that blocked out all sight and
for a moment Davin screamed as the damage he had inflicted was
returned to him tenfold. When the darkness cleared Davin lay on the
rock, a trickle of blood from his nose his only visible sign of
injury.

"Davin!" Mika shrieked and dodged back away from one of the Bombs.
Then Syeira was there, her foot knocking the gaseous creature away
from the child. Marcine stared in shock as Stine laughed. It was a
laugh that was more malice than joy as his entire body shook with
delight.

"I am invincible! Yonder fools are no match for my awesome might," he
sneered. "No witchery can even slow my progress towards thine
destruction, I will deliver justice upon thine heads and..."

"Silence!" Syeira shouted and snapped her hands at him in irritation.
For a moment Mika thought she saw a ripple in the air around Stine's
head and then it was gone. His mouth continued to work after that, but
no sounds came out. He paused, his eyes blinking as the comprehension
that he couldn't hear himself speak dawned. He tried for a few seconds
to say something, and then his eyes narrowed and he began to gesture
in a threatening manner at the thief, who only stuck her tongue out at
him in response.

"Thank you!" Mika told her and promised herself that she would be nice
to the woman... for a few days. Mika looked around and noticed
something else, it seemed that the Bombs were milling around in mild
confusion. Mika realized that without Stine's orders they were just
stupid monsters and a plan began to form in her mind.

"Now I'll finish him off," Syeira said and rocked back on her heels.
"Eat this you loudmouth! Shadow Knives!" She swung forward, miming
throwing knives at the assassin... and nothing happened. Syeira's eyes
widened and she neatly fell over as her balance deserted her. "Hey,
what happened to my attack!"

"You're asking me?" Mika said. "Can you lure these things over next to
Stine?"

"Heh," Syeira said as she leapt to her feet. "I can do better than
that kid! Just get behind me..." She paused. "Hey, where's Cavanaugh?"
Mika looked around, her eyes searching and then she spotted Marcine.
The girl was running in a tight circle around the battlezone, just out
of Stine's view, straight towards Davin. She was grimacing and
obviously in pain and Mika cursed herself for forgetting to toss her a
healing potion while she had a chance.

"Nevermind," Mika said calmly, "Just do it!"

"...gather gracefully, Aero!" Syeira finished her chant and lifted her
hand, twisting it slightly before pushing it towards the milling
monsters. The tornado that broke through the rainswept fight was a
modest one, barely bigger than a man and probably wouldn't have done
much more than spin a full-sized man around a few times. But the
Bombs were not people, with no way to secure purchase to the ground
they were at the mercy of the wind as it flung them back, spinning
them like tops and mashing them into each other. Stine yelled and
ducked as the four beasts were flung over his head to come to rest
behind him. Syeira gasped in a deep breath and feel to her knees. "I'm
spent... I don't think I have another spell in me."

Mika was okay with that, Stine was playing right into her hands. His
head turned to mutely harangue the monsters instead of paying
attention to them and she reached into her pouch, carefully pulling
out the vial with the various warning labels all over it out.

Meanwhile Marcine dragged Davin back, away from the fight and looked
over him quickly. Her back was killing her but she forced herself to
ignore it and concentrate on him. She had gotten some medical training
during her brief study period with the Church and she could identify
no immediate cause for his injuries. As far as she could tell he was
just unconscious, but at least he was still breathing. She sucked air
into her lungs and forced herself to concentrate despite the pain.
"Soul of the living world, aid your fallen child, Cure!"

Davin disappeared in a flash of blinding magic, his body a silhouette
of brilliant light. Then the light dissolved, leaving only the
flickering green sparks that obscured her vision for a moment. She
blinked them away and looked down to see the young geomancer open his
eyes and stare at her in confusion for a moment before memory
returned. For that instant, while his face didn't recognize her,
wasn't aware of where he was he looked so much like the child he had
been short years ago. Marcine felt maybe she'd seen something
intensely private but didn't know how to describe it.

"Where is he?" Davin said and pulled himself to his feet. He spun his
head and saw Stine yelling at his four remaining Bombs... except no
sound was coming out of his mouth. It was eerie. Then he saw Mika
hefting a vial of clear liquid in one hand and pulling back for a
mighty throw. "Mika don't!" But he was too late again, already the
vial was arcing through the air towards the monsters. Davin didn't
think, he stood all the way up, grabbed Marcine around the waist and
started running.

Mika watched as Davin's eyes lighted on the vial and then he was up
and running, moving faster than she had ever seen him move before.
Even when he was avoiding scullery work at their place. Then Syeira
had her by the belt and was also running, her feet skipping over
broken and slippery ground with the grace of a deer. Mika was thus the
only one facing in the right direction to see her vial land directly
between all four of the Bomb's. It exploded in a flash and concussion
that lifted Mika's wet hair back. And then the Bombs seemed to shake
as the blast ripped through them, their bodies expanding and sparks
snapping and sizzling in the rain all around them. Stine saw this and
turned to run...

***

Kyle stopped as he rounded a corner in the maze and pulled Martin in
after him. There were four Magi around the corner, flinging spells too
fast and too often for their weary bodies to charge the short distance
without it turning into a killing zone. He winced as a detonation
knocked chunks of the ceiling loose. Martin was covered in bruises and
burns, barely able to stand and all around looked even worse than
Kyle felt.

"I don't think I can go on sir," Martin admitted between shallow
breaths. "They just don't stop coming and I don't have the
strength..."

"I know," Kyle grunted and put his hand to his side where a sharp pain
racked him. A legacy of the Bolt spell he had taken there a few
seconds ago. He could barely feel that side of his body, if he hadn't
been... been dodging he would be dead.  (Dodge a lightning bolt?
That's crazy!) He frowned, it was crazy. There was no way that simply
turning his body at the last instant could have lightened the blow of
that Bolt spell. It should have fried every nerve in his body. By all
rights he should be dead by now.

By all rights, he should have been dead hours ago. Kyle had a healthy
ego but even he didn't believe he could fight for (four? twelve?)
hours and still be alive, even against peasants. No, no something was
wrong. Something was...

(playing with him!)

Kyle's eyes widened as a strange sort of understanding dawned on him.
He knew exactly what he had to do now. Without pause, fearing the
cloud that had been strangling his thoughts for the past few hours
would return he swung around the corner and faced the four Magi,
already in mid cast, and calmly threw his sword to the ground.

"Sir!"

Then they attacked, four blasts of burning flame converging on him at
once. By all rights they should have charred him to the bone. By all
rights they should have left a black skeleton behind. By all rights
this should be his last moment on earth, when he should make his peace
with the gods.

By all rights, he should have died, but he didn't.

***

Kyle came awake not gradually, or peacefully, but with the suddenness
of a grenade going off. He gave off a muffled gasp and his eyes opened
and he saw a familiar ceiling. Yes, he had been here before. He sat
up, pushing himself onto his elbows and taking in the room. It was the
same as the room he had first "woken up" in hours ago. The desk
covered with papers and plans, the skullcaps and the shelves. But
there were several things that hadn't been here before. The window
looking out on the marketplace of Atlantea was one. The rest of his
troops were another. Well, he amended as he scanned them, most of his
troops. Maybe four or so were missing. They all seemed be to be
unconscious and lying on the ground with skullcaps over their head.
Their unconscious bodies twitched and jerked as if they were caught in
the depths of some terrible nightmare. Which was probably the truth.
He turned his head and saw Martin beside him, face etched in worry and
confusion as his body spasmed slightly in response to stimuli that
were only in his mind. He didn't even have so much as a bruise, much
like Kyle himself. The final difference was the large, obese really,
man in rich clothes sitting at the desk with his back to Kyle.

Kyle reached up and carefully placed his hands over the skullcap he
found on his own head. As quietly as possible he removed it from his
head and stood all the way up. He looked around and found his naginata
and sword pilled in a corner nearby along with most of his troops
equipment. Careful not to make a sound or step on any of his men Kyle
moved across the room towards his weapons. As he moved the door out
opened and Kyle watched as four people walked in, carrying two
unconscious Dragoons. His heart froze but he calmed down when he saw
the people's eyes drift over him without pausing and fix on the richly
dressed man. Kyle started moving again.

"Ah yes," the man said and Kyle recognized the voice. "Excellent. That
only leaves two unaccounted for. Soon enough I will have broken all
their spirits and then I can send them back to Tienne..."

Kyle's hands closed around the shaft of his glaive and he rose up,
steel flashing in his eyes. He yelled out, a wordless battle cry that
caused the man to turn ponderously towards him. Kyle wasn't sure if he
could really describe the expression later, only that it was fearful.
The man moved with the disturbing speed of the obese and jerked back
as the blade of Kyle's spear buried itself in his chair. Kyle pulled
it free with a jerk and leapt easily up onto the desk. The magician
stumbled back, his eyes wide with fright and his voice saying words
that Kyle couldn't hear. Kyle prepped himself for a final leap and a
finishing blow, but was stopped.

The four people that had come into the room charged into him. Their
charge was clumsy and slow, but their sheer weight and his unsteady
footing was more than enough to send him pinwheeling off the edge of
the desk. He rolled with it, avoiding serious injury and came up
facing his opponents. The people facing him didn't have the bearing of
warriors, in fact from their dress he guessed they were merchants and
servants. None of them carried weapons and they moved toward him with
the graceless mechanical gait one associated with sleepwalkers. He
growled and prepared to cut them out of his path...

"Kyle stop!" Kyle looked up and saw Cheney and one of his younger
Dragoons stepping into the room. "They're enchanted!" Kyle cursed and
at the last moment reversed his stroke, smashing the opponent he had
meant to gut in the temple with the butt of his naginata instead. The
man went down like a ragdoll and Kyle waded through the rest of them
with similar ease, striking out with his long shaft and knocking them
unconscious before they could get anywhere near him.

When it was over Kyle looked around but saw no sign of his tormentor.
He turned to Cheney. "Where did he go?"

"That way," Cheney said indicating the door. "He was heading towards
the back of the church." Kyle filed the church comment away for
future reference and sprinted past him, moving as fast as his legs
could carry him.

"We can't let him get away!" he yelled over his shoulder and heard
Cheney sigh before charging after him. The old soldier was followed
closely by the novice, whose name eluded Kyle for the moment.

The hallway through which they ran was decorated with fine tapestries
and colorful paintings. Whoever owned this place was a rich man who
didn't mind spending his money. Cheney shouted and indicated a
side-door which was sliding closed ahead of them. Kyle somehow found
an untapped reservoir of strength inside him and put on a last minute
speed burst that carried him to the threshold in seconds. Then with
one kick he slammed the door inward and followed his quarry. The man
was across a round stone room, just about to start up a stairwell that
disappeared into the wall and curled up out of sight. "Stand and fight
heretic!" Kyle roared.

The man turned, slowly and took in the situation with a glance. His
face was piggish, with eyes hidden behind thick glasses and a haircut
done up in the latest fashion. He wore a golden circlet over his brow
and his rich clothes did little to conceal his bulk. He was sweating
even from the short exertion of that brief sprint.

"Damn you," he growled. "I guess I have to make my stand here."

"Give up," Kyle forced himself to say between clenched teeth. "You're
outmatched and none of your tricks can save you now."

"Tricks?" the obese magician's face lit up. Behind him Kyle could hear
Cheney and the novice coming into the room and spreading out along the
wall. "Boy," he said, "You are about to learn never to underestimate
your enemy! Almighty souls, protect your humble servant, Barrier!"

Kyle was moving even before the magic-user finished his chant, but he
couldn't get there in time. He thrust his naginata only to have it
slam into something that simple wasn't there. A flash of blue light
formed a disc in front of his target and Kyle found himself thrown
back by the force of the collision. The Magi was laughing, his voice a
rich deep tone like a bell tolling. Kyle cursed himself for letting
himself underestimate his enemy. That was often a fatal mistake.

"For church and country!" the novice yelled suddenly and charged in.
Cheney yelled for him to stop but the youth had committed himself
fully to the attack. His sword had no more luck piercing the Magi's
shield than Kyle's glaive had. Things turned out worse for him,
because this time the magi was ready and waiting for the attack. With
a yell of "DiFire!" the magician sent a spiral of intense heat into
the near-child. The boy screamed as the flames blasted him into the
wall and he collapsed with his cloak aflame.

Cheney cursed and seemed to fold back, his sword fell to the ground
with a clatter and he seemed to coil his entire body like a spring. He
then snapped his body forward and brought his palm forward. "Wave
Fist!" his voice cracked like thunder and something seemed to flash
from his palm to the Magi too fast for Kyle to see. There was a flash
of purple light and the man screamed, clutching his gut and staggering
backward. Kyle didn't think he could handle this, so for now he
didn't.

"Bastard!" the man yelled. "I'll teach you to strike me... Fury of
mother earth, tremble and explode, Quake!"

Kyle leapt as the stone underneath him cracked and heaved, then
finally exploded. Great chunks of stone and debris flew into the air,
fell to the ground only to be thrust violently skyward again. Kyle was
struck at least twice by large chunks of the floor and many more times
by smaller bits and he collapsed into the rush of wreckage. Vaguely he
heard Cheney yelling in pain over the cacophony as the spell tore the
entire floor apart. He fell for much longer than he would have thought
possible until he realized that the spell had destroyed the floor they
were on and that the three of them were collapsing into the next level
of the building. He landed in the debris, his body screaming out in
pain as on of his ribs cracked from the impact. He ignored that and
looked up, seeing the magician standing overhead on the end of the
stairwell. There was no way for him to get up there, not without Boost
Armor.

"Heh," the man smirked once the last echoes of the collapse had
ceased. "Pitiful Dragoon whelp, you are no match for the might of the
Manakyr! We shall rise again and crush your order like bugs beneath
our heel. Already the gateways to our return open one by one, the hand
of that girl who shall be Daravon's Legacy!"

Something snapped inside Kyle, the pain and the anger and the
humiliation

(and above all, something else)

all added up and he roared. Then he was leaping into the air, jumping
higher than humanly possible, easily clearing the distance between him
and the Magi and kept going, his head nearly brushing the upper
ceiling. And he came down, roaring "Ground Zero!" as he came, his
naginata thrust below him. There was a blue flash as his glaive met
the magical shield once more but this time it didn't hold. With a
sound like shattering glass it snapped into a million shards and faded
from view. Then he hit the ground and it exploded under him, the blast
sending the Magi flying into a wall. When the smoke cleared Kyle was
kneeling in a foot deep crater at the foot of the stairs, hanging
precariiously next to the drop, not quite sure what he had done or
how.

"Not possible," the magician coughed, spitting up a small amount of
blood. "I'll finish this once and for all!" He reached into his belt
and came out holding a small red orb. Kyle's breath caught when he saw
what it was and he tried to lift himself up to attack but he was still
dazed. The man held up the orb and pointed it at Kyle... and screamed
as red sparks leapt from it to his fingers. With a cry of outrage and
the words "...not unsealed..." he flung the orb at Kyle. Kyle's
reflexes took over and he snapped his hand up, catching the object
before it could hurt him. But that was enough to push him off his
balance and send him tumbling over the edge, where he fell the ten
feet to the ground and landed hard on his back among the rubble. He
vaguely saw the magician staggering up the stairwell before he blacked
out.

***

At the top of the oldest cathedral in the world, in the room which
housed the oldest bell ever molded, the night air was cold. The man
who came staggering out of the trapdoor was much the worse for wear.
His rich clothes were burnt and stained with his own blood. A long red
slash that Kyle hadn't seen in his daze ran along his side and
although it was not bleeding it was not far from it. His hand was
clenched to his stomach like he was trying to keep his insides from
falling out and his piggish face was bruised and discolored.

But he was free, and safe. The child captain had proven more
resourceful than he would have imagined. But from here it would be a
simple matter to Float down to the courtyard and call all his slaves
to deal with the man. Oh yes, then he would get his revenge. He half
walked, half crawled to the railing which was all that separated the
room from the elements and put his hands on it so he could pull
himself up. Then a foot landed firmly on his fingers and he gave an
involuntary screech of pain.

He looked up and saw the cloaked figure, all darkness and shadow in
the starlight. All except the metal mask, the faceless metal mask. His
heart beat faster.

"Siegvin!" he hissed.

"I'm guessing the girl isn't here," Siegvin said calmly. "Or else you
would not have let the children defeat you so easily."

"What do you want?"

"Tell me where the girl is," he said, "Help me find her."

The man laughed. "Never," he croaked. "You had your chance but now it
is long gone. I would never let the girl fall into your hands. I would
die first."

"If that's the way you feel about it," he said calmly, "Then we have
nothing more to discuss." Their was the blood-chilling sound of metal
on leather and a tiny flash of purple light that followed that. Then
silence.

***

The disheveled and slightly singed party made their way out of the
last pass and into the beginning of the foothills just as the noon sun
was beginning its slow fall back to the earth. The rain had cleared up
about and hour ago, but the overcast sky had not. The trail was thick
with mud and flotsam carried down from the peaks. They decided to rest
for a few minutes and decide what to do next. Beyond the foothills
were the steppes and then the plains, disappearing far off over the
horizon like an ocean of earth.

"I don't see how we have any choice," Syeira said. "We have to get to
Voden and get some rest. None of us is in any shape to be traipsing
across the wilderness at this point."

"I don't think that's a good idea," Davin said and toyed with the hilt
of his sword. "We should probably cut cross-country until we hit one
of the local farming villages instead."

"We could probably do that," Syeira began slowly, "IF someone hadn't
BLOWN UP OUR SUPPLIES!"

"I'm sorry!" Mika said in an exasperated tone. "How was I supposed to
know the explosion would be so big?"

"Common sense?"

"Leave her alone," Marcine interrupted. "It wasn't all that bad, we
all got out of it relatively unhurt. And it did take care of that
bounty hunter, or whatever he was."

"Beastmaster," Davin said absently. "They can control any beast they
have defeated in combat. The Beastlores were a bit beyond their
standard area of training however."

"Well," Mika said proudly, "Does this mean I get to control him? I
beat him in combat didn't I?"

"It doesn't quite work that way..."

"We've drifted off the topic," Syeira reminded them. "We have to go to
Voden; without fresh supplies and a rest to recover from our wounds we
aren't going to get far across those plains. They're infested with
monsters. The valley which Voden lies in is just north of here, even
travelling along the mountains its much safer."

"I think she's right Davin," Marcine added thoughtfully. "We do all
need to rest."

Davin looked between the two of them, his face taking on the subtle
expression of a caged animal. Then with a resigned sigh he nodded.
"Okay," he said, "We can go to Voden."

"Yeah!" Mika hurrahed. And so the party started down the path, turning
north towards the city of Voden.

"Are we there yet?"

"Die!"

"Syeira! What are you doing?!?"

***

This time Kyle's return to consciousness was more gradual and much
more comforting. He sat up, wondering for a moment where he was. Then
he glanced around at the last few minutes came racing back. He would
have winced, but he realized he wasn't in any pain. Probing curiously
at his ribs he felt them all whole and undamaged.

He turned to look at saw Cheney, old wise and trusted Cheney pulling
the young novice out from under a slab of broken floor. He put his ear
to the youth's chest and a weary tenseness seemed to drain from his
face. Then he picked the boy up and held him by the shoulders.
"Chakra," he said quietly and for a moment there seemed to be a light
that shone out of the old man's very soul and bathed the boy in warm
radiance. When the light dimmed the boy was coughing but uninjured.
Cheney let out a weary sigh and sat down heavily on the ground.

"So I wasn't seeing things," Kyle said.

"No," the old man smiled thinly. "I guess not."

"You're a Red Monk!" Kyle accused with less harshness in his voice
than he would have liked.

"Former Red Monk," Cheney corrected. "Just like I am a former Dragoon.
I can tell you without lying that I am loyal to the -principles-
of the Church."

"The Red Monks were disbanded by the Church years ago," Kyle walked
over to him. "Are you a spy?"

"No. We don't like magic anymore than you do, we just felt that only
those who abused magic had to be dealt with, not all magic."

Kyle wasn't sure how to respond to this.

"Are you going to arrest me?" he asked, "Put me in chains?"

"I haven't decided yet," Kyle told him and walked away. He walked over
to the wall and looked up to the stairwell. He knew pursuit was
probably futile now, but something wouldn't let him let go. He reached
out to begin searching for hand-holds when he realized he was still
holding the object the man had tossed at him.

He took a moment to examine it. It was red, with shots of orange and
yellow that seemed to shift and swirl depending on how the light hit
it. There was no doubt about it, it was a Guardian Egg. The nest of a
Sleeper. He had seen them before of course, but never held one. It was
warm, almost pleasantly so. It felt like it was made to fit into his
hand. It was alive, and he could feel it.

For a moment raw disgust swept through his mind and he wanted nothing
more than to hurl the damned thing off the edge of the world. Soon
rationality returned and he knew it was his responsibility to return
it to Tienne. He secreted it away in his pouch and scaled the wall
with practiced ease. He retrieved his naginata and made his way to the
top of the bell tower.

The body was definitely that of the man who attacked them. Clove clean
in two across the waist. His body seemed to have been searched and
something removed, but what Kyle had no idea. A quick scan showed that
nobody else was anywhere around. Only the dark house of Atlantea
stretching into the distance.

Another mystery. Another question without an answer. Would they ever
end?

***

High up in the Harshak mountains, a figure lay sprawled on a ledge
over a deep valley. The figure was naked, its clothes having been
burned from its body. It was unarmed, its weapon having fallen to
earth several hundred meters in the distance. It was unconscious, for
a short time.

"Argh!" Stine roared as he sat up. "I shall make them pay! None
humiliate Beastmaster Stine in such a way, none does so and lives!
Before this battle was merely for the Citizen's justice..." He stood
up so as to better pose. "But now it is personal. Fear me heretics and
traitors to all mankind, I shall hunt thee to the ends of the earth
and strike thee down with my mighty fists! Haha!"

He turned and saw the large horned beast that was sleeping peacefully
on the leg between him and the path down. It was a large purple
monster the size of several men and resembled nothing so much as a
cross between a bison and a lion. Stine growled at this thing before
him and gave it a mighty kick so that it might know who was master and
therefore get out of his way.

The Behemoth was not pleased to be woken up so rudely, and
demonstrated this to Stine, at some length.

<To be continued...>

=====================================================================

Author's Notes:

Since one of my pre-reader's was so against the subject I now present:

"Why Epsilon Decided to Make Stine a Beastmaster."

Reason #1: Stine needs to be something of a threat to our
heros. Making him into a Kunouesque joke would do more harm
to the story than good. Stine occupies the place of
"recurring villian" (like the Turks or Ultros etc.) and thus
needs to be at least something of a problem. Now, the
problem comes with powering him up, one -could- make him a
phenomenal fighter but that would only make him a weaker,
less interesting version of Seigvin, which is a mistake.
That doesn't leave many options. Magic-user is out because
he is hunting down the Heretics for the Church. He shouldn't
be the same Job Class as any of the heros, so that leaves
out their various skills. That pretty much leaves only
Beastmaster. Also remember that Lambert would not have hired
an utterly useless moron.

Reason #2: Stine is egotistical, not stupid. Even with a lot
of personal power he would still be no match for all four of
the heros. Unlike in the standard FF we can't simply give
him lots and lots of HP for them to have to wear down. So,
Stine -needs- to even up the odds. He can do this in two
ways, be so strong he can KO one of the heros in one blow,
or have help. The KO in one blow is not very fun, as it
means that we won't get much chance to use the four heros
against him or have them develop much teamwork etc. In other
words, it is limiting. The have help option is a better one,
because like i pointed out Stine is egotistical, not stupid.
He believes he can win, but will still have decent plans.
Being a Beastmaster gives him easy access to allies to help
occupy and weaken our heros without having him resort to
-human- aid, which would be much less plausible. Also note
that Stine may consider his monsters to be extensions of his
own power (which is to an extent true in this case) and thus
would be just as proud of defeating them that way.

Reason #3: The story just isn't Final Fantasy unless they
run in Monsters. And since this is more story focused its
not going to be filled with references to random encounters
with Morbols and Goblins. By making Stine a Beastmaster I
give future authors free reign to use any monster they can
think of and draw from FF lore extensively, without forcing
the meeting to have the jarring effect of random monster
encounter (I remember reading a D&D book which contained
them, it was horrible).

Note that Davin seems to be familiar with Beastmastery, which miht
indicate that it is taught at the Mystic Academy, yet Stine wears no
Tri-fan... future authors can do with that what they will.

A final note, the geography of the main continent of this story might
begin to get confusing if someone doens't start codyfing it soon, I
had a great deal of trouble with this myself. If someone has any
artistic or cartography skills and would like to whip up an small map
based on the so far explored world of FF Legacy that would be great.
I'd do so myself, but my mapping skills are inept at best.

This was a blast, and I enjoyed writing it immensely. I especially
enjoyed writing the scenes with Kyle and Cheney since Kyle is my
favorite character in the series (gotta love misled, honourable,
anti-heros!). Also note that in this chapter I remain (technically)
Double Dog Dare complaint as far as new characters go!

I would like to thank Terence Fergusen for extensive pre-reading,
debate and other things that helped me improve this chapter a great
deal. I would also like to thank Brain Stricklin for starting this
Impro, and Square for creating Final Fantasy in the first place.

For those of you interested in Final Fantasy lore and information
check out: http://www.geocities.com/omegaonyx9/ff.html for an
extensive look at the whole of the Final Fantasy series.

Thank you for reading. Comments, flames, critiques and questions can
all be directed to: tzubi@ns.sympatico.ca OR posted to the Improfanfic
Message Board (http://impro.ancient.org/mb/).

---------------
Epsilon