Author's Notes: Taking place at about the same time as "The Engineer's Problematic Solution", still shortly after the main game's events. Spoilers abound. Its in-progress, as I've probably a major scene or two yet to dream up for the big finish.
The Hell Knight’s Proposal
The royal hall was silent. No soul dared to disturb the precious moments of peace enjoyed by the hero-king, and this night more than any other. The previous day had passed slowly in mourning, decorations of black and silver lining ones vision from chamber to chamber, and even the most loud-spoken of the palace guard held to hushed tones, as if the king himself were a step away. But as was always his custom, the king was not to be found on the throne of Ivalice, or even within his personal chambers that held every luxury that combined wealth, power and fame could afford. The king, richly honored as the savior of the peace, and protector of Ivalice, credited with ending the bitter Lion’s War and uniting the kingdom as had only been spoke of in fairy tales, left the palace without fanfare or escort. Yet it could hardly be said he left in secrecy, as he made his intentions very clear; “I go alone this night, and will return by morning. To disturb me may cost your life.” And as he had long since mastered the skills of the holy sword, his words were respected.
Five years ago to the day, a tragedy had befallen the kingdom of Ivalice. Just as peace had returned to the land, and lives had begun to heal, the King was found in a secret garden forbidden to all but he and his wife, Queen Ovelia. And with him was the corpse of the Queen, the blood still freshly flowing outward from her stomach. Her own hand was on the blade, seeming to hold it in place. The blood splattered flowers, scattered about the clearing, were a birthday gift to her from the King. It seemed fitting that since the first day of the Queen’s life was also her last, she was to be honored in death as she was in life; For her birthday, she had requested fresh flowers, and the silence to enjoy them in.
Not far from the castle there was dried up brook that was spanned by a broken bridge of dark stone. A lone, small cottage was there, with a lantern hung outside that swayed in the light breeze. Inside, a dying fire in the hearth cast flickering shadows over the young girl who waited in silence, listening.
The sky had clouded, and the wind picked up noticeably. The sweet smell of rain had swelled in the air, and it seemed more and more likely that there would be no visitor this night after all. The girl rose, smoothing her finest silk back into place, and untied the ribbon which had held her hair in such perfect pose. Moving to the door in the flickering light, she lifted the bolt, and opened the way into the night. The pathway was empty, though it was hard to see beyond the ring of light cast by the lantern. There seemed to be movement in the shadows all around as the night winds danced in the trees and brush, accompanied by the soft sifting sounds they produced.
Raising onto her tip toes, the young woman was able to lift the lantern’s handle high enough to clear the hook it had rested on, and brought it down as slowly as possible to avoid touching the hot metal and glass of the casing. A soft voice cleared it’s throat from behind, seamlessly flowing with the sounds of the night.
“Aeris, my lady. Am I that late?” With a start, she whirled around to confront the dark haired man. Though still a youth, he seemed to hold the same inner scars to his voice that a man twice his age would be hard pressed to accept. Though still hauntingly handsome with his soft brown eyes, his gaze seemed cold and imperial. The wildly flickering light cast mad gleams over the expensive and regal looking armor of the King, but soon Aeris had regained her composure enough to steady the lantern. With a bow, she turned away and shut the door securely. Feeling the young man’s increasing scrutiny, she risked an irritated glance.
“Your highness, I apologize for not offering you the hospitality of my home, but my mother has fallen ill, and so she’s staying here with me to recover. As it is already so very late, may we continue ahead?”
“Aeris, you may call me Delita. I was once a ‘commoner’, and even with all this gaudy façade of greatness, I’ll not endure being treated as a ‘noble’ by someone who lives the very life I might have led.” He gave a practiced shrug, loosening a dark green cape from his shoulders. With a jerk, he freed the cloak from his armor, and gently placed the finely threaded gift into Aeris’s hands.
“You seem cold, and the design goes well with your dress. A deep forest green around the midnight sky, gently laced together by the wind.” Even in the lantern light, Aeris could see the gold embroidering of the cloak did resemble that of her dress’s sleeves, and gave herself a moment to wonder how much of a coincidence it could have been. The brown eyes laughed, lightening for the first time that evening, as his companion tried to find words to both thank him for the gift, and accuse him of some indistinct crime.
“I-I don’t know what to say, but there is no way I could accept such a fine –“
“Come now, Aeris. I’ve seen you only twice before, and yet each time we meet I feel somewhat obligated to you. This eases my obligation, that is all.”
“So then, this is a bribe.”
“No, no…I would have no reason to bribe you, flower girl. You saw yourself what happened that day…Were you not just as close to me as you are right now? There, in the garden, watching?”
“And so you know Ovelia tried to kill me. Why would I want to bribe you to not share that with the world? Who would listen to a flower girl about such things?”
“But I also noticed when you first hid the knife within the bouquet. Why, Delita?” The king’s expression grew dark, the handsome features contorted. He smoothed back his rich brown hair, considering what next to say. Conversations with the flower girl were always very ‘sensitive’, and yet Delita was a man who didn’t back down from challenge.
“Because I knew what was going to happen that day. There was someone else who knew about that garden, Aeris. I knew…that someone would try to take my life, then and there. But I didn’t know who…I didn’t know it was Ovelia.”
“Delita, why…did you let me live? I’m the only one who knows that you killed her – what is the value of one more life to take – the life of a commoner?” With a sudden movement, Delita crossed the space between them and backhanded the girl. Slack with shock more than pain, Aeris focused her attention past the burning mark on her cheek to rage filled face before her.
“Do not ever speak of the sacrificing of a commoner’s life to me! Not ever again will you mention such a thing in my presence!” He seemed torn between wanting to stalk off into the night or hit her a second time, but all at once regained control of himself.
“Forgive me, Aeris. We’ve no further business…from this night on.” He moved as if to leave, but stopped at her gesture. She stumbled forward, but caught herself easily. Hiking up her dress, she came closer, and with a deft blow, knocked the king hard enough to make him rock back on his heel.
“If you’re going to hit someone, put a little effort into it, your highness. Now let’s get your damn flowers, and finish our conversation. You told me before the reason you spared my life was because you wanted someone to know the truth – well, I DO want to know the truth. That’s why I asked, your majesty.” It was Delita’s turn to look shocked as he rubbed his jaw, but he gave a sly grin.
“For a loyal subject, you are a real piece of work. But…I do appreciate it, Aeris.”
Stepping carefully down the soft earth path around the side of the house, the two made there way into the midnight garden splendor. A frothing of soft petals and fragrant moisture filled the air. Pausing only once, Delita looked hard into the shadows beyond the lantern’s light, but could see only the reflective dew on the deep green leaves and soft petals. Distant thunder sounded, which hurried the flower girl in her work. She quickly assembled the necessary produce, and with the expert skill that years of practice yields, a beautiful bounty was soon completely wrapped within the delicate cloth she had prepared days in advance. The color of the blooms was tinted in the lantern light, but even so, Delita’s mind translated what he saw into the same vivid colors he perceived on that day so long ago. The smell was identical, and with as sigh, he accepted the solemnly offered bouquet.
“A storm will be here soon. I suppose I’ll have to wait another year to hear more of your explanation. It’s a pity you didn’t come sooner, as I think I’m close to getting you to open up more.”
“It’s obvious you’re holding back things. Always. But I guess that’s what it is to be a noble – if you tell the truth, then there are those who will use it against you.”
“Perhaps it may seem that way, but…there isn’t much to tell in my case. Pissing me off isn’t the way to grand revelations though, but I’ll give you something for your effort.”
“I’m listening, Delita.”
“I will tell you two things which are very dangerous should you ever speak of them to anyone, for ‘they’ cannot risk that someone may listen to even a flower girl. I will tell you who it is that warned me, and why. Then you’ll understand why I refused to before, and you must promise your secrecy. Knowing that the truth is saved brings me comfort, but I won’t sacrifice lives for that. Not even a flower girls.”
“I swear to you Delita, and to the Crown. What I hear I will only keep for the sake of the truth.” He still seemed hesitant, but as another rumble of thunder came near, he spoke in a hushed voice a single sentence.
“Olan Durandi told me that there was one within the castle who had been seduced by the Old Queen.”
"The heretic Olan - You mean the same Olan who is standing trial for heresy for speaking against you?”
“He knew a good friend of mine. You see, the problem is that despite being under my protection, Olan decided to abandon all reason and challenge the Church head on. I’ve read his writings, and…I’ve every reason to believe they are accurate.”
Aeris stood mute a few moments, processing this new information. Delita seemed to be eager to talk, now that he had started.
“Basically, I tried to stop him, to make him wait until the time was right when people would be willing to listen to the truth. I doubt my sins will blacken the trust in the royal family any at this point. He agreed to work for me at first. In many ways, he was my prisoner, but he was well treated. I aided him in his research as best I can, especially into the church’s engineering of the war. Well, I wonder if you’ve even read those banned Durandi Papers…Would such a thing have interested a flower girl?”
“That’s actually why I was so suspicious of you tonight. I’ve one of the few remaining compilations. It’s death to any caught having even read a page of the book.”
“So you wonder if the allegations about my part in the war are true. Yes. I told him exactly how it happened. And he knew the true hero of this war personally…”
“Your childhood friend, Ramza? Oh!” The flower girl was startled from her rapture by the first chilled droplets touching her cheek. The thunder was still fairly regular, but seemed to be heading more off to the north. Distant flickers of lightning suggest that the main brunt of the storm had been dodged by the two, for now.
“Yeah. And so when Olan warned me, I believed him without any hesitation. When I entered that garden, I had thought someone would be there to kill me, and perhaps Ovelia too. But no…The Queen had apparently visited with Ovelia in secret for some time. As the Durandi Papers mentioned, there are some questions about Ovelia’s lineage…It seems the Old Queen managed to convince Ovelia that in order to protect my claim to the throne, I would have to protect hers, which to a noble would logically suggest killing her to prevent the debate.”
“Did you love her, Delita?”
“I don’t know. But what I do know is…I would have died for her. You know, it’s kind of funny. I say that, but…”
“There are three people in my life whom I would died to protect, Aeris. Two of them died in front of me. My sister Teta, ‘sacrificed’ by the nobles to win a petty battle, and my Queen, Ovelia, by my own hand. And the third…I don’t know if he’s alive or not, but…Like Olan, I hope that Ramza is living his life in peace.”
The flower girl giggled as the king cursed. The gently sprinkling rain had nearly missed his highness entirely prior to that moment, but suddenly he was quite well drenched. Some overhead leafy thing had filled with water slowly, and then after a certain point, tipped.
“So now I know the whole story. Thanks, Delita. I thought it was something like that, but I still wanted you to tell me.”
“You are extremely pushy, Aeris. But you have to be that way when you’re dealing with a king, or a noble of any kind.”
“I’ll remember that, your highness. Thank you for the cloak, and your trust. Will I see you again, next year?”
“Of course. It will be time for fresh flowers. Though she died fearing me, when I bring those flowers to the garden I see her as I did – as I did when I promised to build a country worthy of her.”
After seeing his friend in for the night, Delita left. His chocobo was waiting anxiously, tied to a nearby tree that seemed blackened as if by lightning. Puzzling that for a moment, Delita verified his feathered companion was uninjured, and mounted. Securing the bouquet, he set off at a fair pace back towards the castle.
Even so, he couldn’t help feeling as if he was overlooking something. As he had slowly approached the cottage, as he sat in the garden, and even now as he rode back towards the silent hall awaiting his return, there was something amiss. He continued on, but held onto the flowers with slightly more pressure as his mount leapt over a fallen log. For a moment, he had the distinct impression of a whispering voice, indistinct and as soft as the rain’s gentle hiss. And he couldn’t help but notice another blacked tree, this time a stump a few feet away. Nearing the castle town’s outermost walls at last, the inviting torches spreading a blanket of light against the windswept shadows, the king slowed momentarily. As the gates opened, the guards eager to have their king on his way to the security of the castle keep as soon as possible, Delita’s eyes caught on something strange before his vision was obscured by the gate’s shadow. A nearby boulder of some whitish stone showed some recent vandalism, as he was sure the blackened markings were not there when he’d left earlier in the night. While it was only a momentary glace, it seemed in Delita’s mind to resemble the outline of a large frog, burnt onto the surface like a brand.
The garden was sealed just beyond the castle’s keep. While most of the capital had been designed with the flaunting of power and riches in mind, there was history of war that was inescapable in the oldest portions of the fortress city. The maze of finely polished corridors and vaulted chambers eventually ended with the beginnings of the old ruins. Hedges and walkways of stone were placed to allow pleasant access to the grounds, and soon a vast garden maze of ruins had come to guard the innermost grounds of the castle. The Keep, recently built in extravagant detail during a time when nobles had little else to spend their money on but efforts to impress one another, was hardly suited to warfare. Instead, surrounded by fountains of pearl and gold, floral tapestries of the kingdom’s glory, and monuments to forgotten legends, this was where the royalty invited those they wished to impress.
But there was a secret garden that was not open to public eyes. A simple garden, carved into the Keep itself. Surrounded by the plain walls of the Keep, the garden was separate from the rest of the gaudy mess that surrounded the palace. Why the Queen preferred such a mundane location for her garden had at first confused the King, but soon Delita realized why she wanted to keep it so badly. She’d grown up behind monastery walls, forever surrounded by prying eyes. To be so lonely, and yet never be alone, had taken it’s toll on her. And so, Delita sealed the garden well, leaving only the secret route by which Ovelia had first stumbled onto the strangely tranquil spot of rich earth and leafy trees. This hidden courtyard was most likely an engineering accident, used to support the outer wall of the keep. The ancient trees had been too much to remove, and so instead they remained. Working alone, Ovelia soon brought the garden into a flourishing one. She had often said when she felt she needed to see him, she would go there to tend the garden. A chamber maiden ensured no one would miss her, and upon Delita’s return, he would learn the queen has ‘taken leave to the royal garden’.
The rain had ended during his return the Keep. With soft words, he directed the guards to tend his chocobo and fetch another cloak. The youth nearest hurried off, returning with the cloak and a dimmed lantern. With expert hands, the elder guard removed the bulky armor from his King’s body, as silently as possible. The buckles and snaps were numerous, but with the work completed, the silently glistening plated gold was tucked away into dark, unassuming cloth. Donning the dry cloak over his shivering chest, Delita drew the hood down low over his eyes. Turning his head to one side, he spoke to the waiting guards, whose armor clicked as they resumed attention.
“You’ve done well so far. Keep this secret, and I will reward you both.”
“Forgive me sire, but there are few who did not know your habits for this night.”
The elder soldier, looking uncomfortable, prepared to fiercely scold the younger for his brashness, but Delita dispelled the tension with a wave.
“I take it my staff make judgments about their Kings actions?”
“We were about to send a search for you, your majesty. Young Allen here is merely afraid for your highnesses well being...”
“No need to answer for the boy, as he answered for himself well enough. So, Allen, you find it common enough knowledge that I occasionally go out for a stroll. And what did I return with?” The boy, abashed but not wanting to make things worse, indicated the bouquet.
“And, it is only on this evening in particular that I return with such, yeah?”
“But where did I get them? A difficult question, unless one knows how long I was gone. And where will I take them? Another question that remains difficult, unless perhaps one follows me through the Keep, like you did last year.”
Both guards inhaled sharply, the elder flabbergast while the youth choked. With the light of the torches being so irregular, and the lantern’s light negligible in comparison; it was hard to make out the features of either beyond the contortions of fear. Raising his hand for silence, the King spoke again.
“I’ve always had a love for adventures as well. But that place is better forgotten, better left to those who owe it their homage, but to no others. I thought you’d get into even more trouble on your own, and so I asked that a kitchen boy be accepted into the Academy.”
After a few moments of stunned silence, the boy replied.
“I thank you, sire.”
“For what? I know first hand how boring the life of a guard is. Learn what you can from here, and then head out. There’s a world to see, kid.”
“But I swore my fealty –”
“Oh come now. You swore your loyalty to me, and I’m telling you now to adventure as much as possible while you’re young. Settle your loyalties after you’ve had a chance to discover them. And you don’t need to thank me, because I’m just passing on a favor.”
He didn’t add that the resemblance between the youth and Ramza of younger days was nearly painful. But whether coincidence or something greater, it was enough to touch the King, to call to mind the sound of a reed's whistle. Not waiting for any further response, Delita hurried into the shadows, his cloak hiding the lanterns light so that only the barest gleam lead his feet onward.
With a grunt, the ruler of Ivalice caught himself with his legs, the leap from a broken ridge being slightly higher than he’d remembered. Given how rarely he came to this place, he found his memories becoming a bit hazier.
The garden was overgrown, but still had certain reserved beauty. Weeds had strangely not taken root in all this time, which Delita credited as some minor miracle. The withered trees were yet still alive, and looking up into the sky, the moon made an appearance, casting a soft hue over the solemn garden. The sounds of wind through trees was a soft melody joined by the insects chirping, but still somehow muted. There was a harmony to the place which couldn’t be violated.
“So, Ovelia. Another year has passed, and your country seems to be prospering. I know that from here, it must seem nothing changes. Another year of silence, another bouquet of these…”
He paused, noting a pale feather that slowly fell before him, a dancer in the evening breeze which quickly was out of sight. The musk of a chocobo slowly joined the texture of midnight dew that that filled the king’s nostrils. Swallowing back the bile he hadn’t realized was collecting on the threshold of his throat, Delita frowned, throwing back his hood. Tossing the flowers gently to the side, he shined the lantern into the shifty shadows that the moonlight could not reach beneath the trees. From the darkest corner of the garden, a soft cry was heard. Slowly a large shape detached itself, a chocobo of immense proportions quite larger than the normal bird soon emerging into the probing light. Delita’s expression darkened further as the bird gave an additional ‘kweh!” in greeting.
“You have no purpose in this place, stupid bird. For this I ought to snap your neck! Or perhaps I should simply throw you way?”
The bird balefully stepped backwards into the shadow, becoming an indistinct twisting and turning yellow shape accompanied by sounds like the sizzle and pop heard often in the kitchen. A rough voice answered the king’s angry yell, but was heavy with pain. Each word was formed ragged and raw, but was perfectly understandable to the irate king.
“I thought you may need my services tonight.”
“Your services! Did I not ride you hard enough but two days ago? Did you not bleed and bruise? You impudent fool. You dare to mock me, stupid beast? What is you purpose here this night?”
A sleek form emerged from the shadows, a tightly formed body of muscle and power, covered with pale, downy feathers. On its head, spiky feathers that each were tipped in gold were smoothed back evenly. The human eyes were blue and severe, just as they had been when first the two had met. The swollen arms were likewise feathered, but the feathers were longer on the outside of its arms, and down the back. Around the tapered waist was a simple loop of leather, which held aloof a loincloth that hanged all the way the ground, a plain looking red fabric with the design of a black lion across it. The feet were large and orange, sporting harsh talons, while the legs housing powerful muscle that continued from where the feathers ended into the stiff orange flesh.
“To serve you, master. To protect you, to please you. My purpose here as everywhere my master has need.”
Taken back by the beast’s candor, Delita quickly surveyed the rest of the garden. All remained still, but nearly too still. The breeze had faded, the insect cries died out, and the air grown strangely heavy.
The chocobo-man flexed his body, eyes locking onto any motion with the most intense of scrutiny. With slow, deliberate steps, he approached the King. Drawing his sword, Delita gestured for him to come closer.
“I offered you back your humanity, but you choose to serve me instead. Why betray me now?”
“My master is angry, but mistaken. This night you have been followed by creatures that burn when they are found.”
Memories of the scorched rock outside the castle returned, bringing the anger within the King’s mind into a more rational, analytical state.
“The blackened stone. And a tree. You followed me?”
“I followed the whispering, all the way…there, and back.”
“And you followed me here, to the garden?”
“No master. I followed the whispering. Creatures that whisper in the forest, that burn when I touched them. Then, I saw you coming back up the trail, so I hid, hoping to find what followed you. But the whispering rode with you. I swear this, as your servant, as your tamed-beast…On my family’s name.”
Delita tilted his head to one side, and looked carefully into the human eyes. The mouth and chin were blended into the sharp beak of a chocobo, but he could see the slight quivering. The gentle subconscious shake that told him his pet was sincere. He also knew of no dearer thing that the beast had to swear by, and so he lowered his blade.
“I’ve decided to believe you, and so I apologize. A good master must reward loyalty even in a disobedient pet. This is…that garden.”
“I-I am sorry, master. I followed the whisper.”
“And then you followed me to the garden. And so here we are.”
“No, Delita. I didn’t reach the castle until you had already gone. I heard the whispering, and so I flew over the wall, and found you here.”
“Then…where is it now?”
Both heard a tearing sound, but by the time the lantern could shine on the offending noise, all that was left was a tattered scrap of cloth, and some flowers strewn about. A voice cleared itself a short distance away, where a small toad sat on a stone ledge.
“Your meddling was very unappreciated, beast. Imagine my confusion as my puppets are snuffed out one after another by a blasted chocobo…And yet what are you really? Some form of demon?”
The clear, concise voice sounded human and male. Even if he was surprised, Delita answered evenly, brandishing his sword.
“A talking toad takes issue with a half chocobo? Show yourself, cowardly hypocrite!”
With a startled cry, the feathered man bodily shoved Delita back, following himself. Just as he touched the ground, Delita looked up to see the intense blaze that stood where the toad had been. It vanished as silently as it had sprung, leaving only the charred remains of the flowers and the smell of burnt toad.
A figure spoke from a mere yard away, the voice matching the toads exactly. The king rose, his sword still at ready, and was flanked by his feathery ally, who now held a large crossbow that no human could have even lifted, much less aimed. If the voice was intimidated, he didn’t show it.
“Come now, I hoped to not kill you. I came this night for information you would have as King.”
“I do not answer the demands of a coward.”
“And I am not fool enough to fight you openly. So you will tell me where Olan Durandi’s trial is being held, or be tortured until you do.”
Strange symbols formed within the air, a hazy blue that burned the eyes. Unable to turn away or even blink, Delita found himself slammed into by the vision. Pain registered, along with strange impressions of Ovelia. He could see her, in his arms. He could feel her, stabbing the cold steel into his chest…
The vision was shattered by a golden light and the warm musk of chocobo. He came to himself, supported gently by a massive, feathered arm. He found he was still on his feet, though leaning heavily. The bird took aim at shadows, unleashing steel bolts that skipped off the stone walls with a trail of sparks. Another burning symbol flared out of the darkness, but landed harmlessly to one side. A twin swirl of the curse echoed further away, fading into a deep crimson nothingness. Angrily jerking free of the protective arm, the king held his blade free into the night air, and reached through the shining edge’s tip into the starlit heavens. Cold light fell, solidifying into jagged pieces of frozen air. Quickly they fell as en mass, piercing through the air into the ground, and all in their way. A bloody cry tore out of the nothingness as the spell faded, the frozen ether melting away as quickly as it had formed. Delita’s eyes trained on the seemingly empty spot where his sword’s vengeance had landed, and carefully approached. His ally loaded another bolt, and maintained a clear shot, circling opposite so as to not endanger the King.
“He’s entrapped within time’s flow. My Stasis Sword should hold him for a time.”
Suddenly the young king was struggling with an unseen foe. Something solid and cold had hit him across the forehead, and now he was being slowly strangled. The chocobo-man started forward with a savage hiss, but halted instantly when he heard the pained yelp from the struggling man in front of him.
“Who am I, you wonder. My skill is unfamiliar to you. I’ve assassinated many a noble on behalf of another noble, thanks to this skill, yet I can be pretty handy with more conventional approaches.”
A swift jerking motion drew another scream from the king, shiny blood on the black cloak evident as he twisted, trying to ease the agony from his shattered shoulder blade. The brown eyes strained with pain to focus on the rage filled features of his feathered companion. The bolt was ready, but the only visible target was Delita himself.
“He’s behind me-take the shot, Algus!”
Before the bird-man’s eyes, another time, another plea was heard. A girl with the same dark brown hair, the same soft brown eyes. The shattered voice that screamed the name of her brother. The bolt that tore her chest open, sent by him as the price of a common girl’s life was less than that of a failure to his superior.
The weapon fell, followed by a few stray feathers. The King looked at the dawning horror across the birdman’s face, apparent even with his strange features. He felt the air fill with the whispers once more, and felt the burning symbol before it was even visible. But then something changed. He heard Algus cry out, the ‘kweh’ of the chocobos, loud and demanding. Even as a burning darkness, a symbol etched into the night itself, burst into being, staining the golden feathers with ruin and sickness, the blue eyes remained fixed on the sky. A red glint fell from the sky, seemingly distant for a moment, and then was already too close to dodge. Delita felt his attacker ripped away, thrown against the far garden wall and pounded by an intense, localized meteor shower. Like any falling star, they were gone after but a moment, but their impact was lasting. There was a sizeable depression away from the king, leading into the crater in the garden wall and floor.
Delita looked from the crater to his shivering companion, who was blinded and poisoned by the strange curse. Removing a vile of Remedy from his cloak, the king quickly applied the soothing panacea gel over the arms and chest of the harsh breathing bird-man. Algus obediently open his mouth at Delita’s probing hand, and swallowed the wicked tasting medicine. After a few moments, the sightless eyes quickly grew collected and thoughtful, focusing on Delita’s concerned visage.
“I forgot that chocobos were friends with the falling star.”
“I disobeyed you again, master. I’m sorry.”
“I will overlook this night as an exception, Algus. You’re being a good chocobo; A great chocobo, so heal yourself now. I will finish this myself.”
Algus wrapped himself in a soft golden glow, mending the strange burns the dark curse had left. Delita stroked his soft belly for a moment, reassuring his pet that all was well, and then proceeded to the crater. Reaching down, he touched something solid in the air, wet and cold. With a jerk, it came loose, and he found a blood soaked vanish mantle’s remains within his hand. Casting the rag aside, he hauled the now visible body of what appeared to be a young man with short brown hair and a warm complexion of skin. He was breathing weakly, but unconscious. Delita unceremoniously deposited his prisoner a short distance away.
“Algus, take him to your chamber. Have him ready to be interrogated within the hour. Do you understand my orders?”
“Yes, your highness.”
With a muted groan, the bruised prisoner took in his surroundings cautiously. The dark brown eyes appeared black in the dimly lit chamber, and the mustiness of the place was heavy with the same smells as a chocobo stall. Algus stood nearby, observing the fear within the still groggy eyes as they beheld their captor up close for the first time. Even in the poor light, it was all to obvious that he wasn’t human. The assassin’s manacled hands and ankles help him ridged and upright against a smooth, warm wall of stone. The room was well heated by a nearby blazing hole in the wall that vaguely resembled a fireplace of sorts, enough heat to provoke a sweat even under less stressful conditions.
The cold blue eyes peered into the fearful brown from over a white cloth veiling the rest of his captor’s features, but it’s shaping brought to mind the recent memory of a razor sharp beak. Algus crossed his arms, allowing his prisoner to take in the exposed feathery muscle. The baleful glance passed the captor up and down, eventually returning to the impatient eyes that seemed too much like the sky to belong in such a place.
“I’m still alive after all that?”
“You had lost a lot of blood, and were pretty busted up by my power. I also was surprised that you had taken two of my bolts in the leg and somehow not made a sound. I did heal you enough to be useful, but you should still feel plenty of pain.”
A finger as light and soft as a feather drew itself up the prisoner’s front. He became aware that his clothing had been removed; bloody scrapes of cloth lay a few feat away in a hastily thrown pile. He was now wearing only a simple white loin cloth, exposing the rest of his well-scarred body. White jagged markings lined his right inner thigh, where the first bolt had ripped through completely. A second mark lay further down, near the ankle; a slightly more direct hit would have taken his foot completely off, but instead it had merely gone numb and useless during the struggle. The assassin’s concentration was a part of his job, and so it wasn’t until after the battle that he’d actually experience pain, or fear.
He steeled himself, shaking slightly as the creature continued to stroke his captive body. There were many forms of torture that this could be leading to, and having been somewhat versed in a few of them himself, it was a strange moment of recognition, feeling the role reversed. But while he’d done or seen done a few inhuman things, the situation seemed far more horrifying when the torturer himself was actually inhuman. The strange combination of human and bird features triggered something within the young man’s stomach, and he tried to choke back his revolution as the captor leaned in. Though he was wearing a tunic, his defined form could be felt through the fabric against the prisoner’s skin. The veiled face came closer to, and he could feel the hot, stinking breath that was clearly a chocobo trait pour onto his face and neck.
“You are terrified of me. That’s good. That means I won’t have to hurt you as bad to make you useful. Tell me your name.”
“To hell with you, beast!”
The captor reacted swiftly, pressing up hard against the prisoner with a sigh. He held the prisoner tightly against the wall, the pain from the manacles actually easing as the prisoner’s weight was held by the powerful chest, heaving with each breath. Letting the air slowly pass from his lungs into his captives face, he watched the many expressions of confusion and fear wash over the handsome features. Finally getting to feel and see the assasine intimately, Algus verified the fit form of a young warrior, soft supple skin over a smoothed, muscular form. The young man’s sweat smelled sweet and bitter. Licking the neck through the white cloth that covered his face hard enough for the captive to squirm, imagining what was just on the other side of the fabric, he simultaneously drew his forearm over up the captive’s side, letting the soft feathers dampen with sweat as they traversed the worried body. Eventually bringing both his hands to hold the prisoners in place at the manacles, letting their body contact be maximized, the captor spoke again in a quiet tone.
“Tell me your name, or I will continue to touch you.”
“What-what the hell ARE you?!”
“Your name, or I will show you in detail what I am.” With a gentle sliding of his chest through the tunic against his captive’s sweating front, the man-beast sent a wave of shaking through his prisoner, whose angry countenance barely made up for the gathering terror within the brown eyes.
“You’re a fool to think I’ll answer to a beast’s threats.”
“Then I will let you decide what you wish to see first. My face, or my body.”
“What form of madness now calls itself king and would play such games!”
“Your king and master, young fool.” With a fierce twist, the tunic’s fabric ripped asaunder, and cool, feathered down of Algus’s chest, firm but soft, seeped into place against the stunned captive. Attempting to jerk himself away from the strange bird-flesh, he managed to dislocate his own shoulder in the frenzy. It was put back into place with a powerful shove as Algus restablished his control over the other man’s body, forcing the harshly breathing man to accept their body’s contact. The smooth, cool touch of the downy firmness simultaneously soothed and terrifed the prisoner, who choked back a scream has he realized it wasn’t a trick at all; the monstrous flesh was wholly real, and insistently caressing his chest and arms.
“What fool would attack his own king and master in the heart of the royal palace, and then mistake mercy for madness? Delita is not one to tolerate fools; He spared your life on the grounds that a fool would not have succeeded as well as you have this night, and that you might serve a use. Either you will be useful, or you are a fool.”
The brown eyes were tightly shut, a bitterly determined expression embedded on the young mans face.
“I only wanted to speak with the king in secret, about a matter that no one must come to know of. If you hadn’t been there, the king would have been in no danger at all. If I could have spoken with him for only a moment alone.”
“I heard your demands, you insolent rat. You dared to make demands against his highness, even threatening his very life before me!” Hissing, seething with animosity, the captor removed the veil with a sharp jerk of the chin, rending the cloth with the razor edge of his beaked jaw. The prisoner felt the motion, but refused to see what had been revealed. Not forcing it on him, Algus instead eased his grip, holding the prisoner tenderly. With a slow, deliberate motion, he nuzzled into the strained neck, laying his profile into the sweaty but sensitive flesh.
In a quivering voice, the dark haired prisoner spoke, the anger still present but subdued.
“Oh God, no, please no…You don’t understand, I was only trying to save someone – I didn’t have anywhere else-” The harsh voice interrupted, angry and savage, breathing hot and hard into the captive’s ear.
“You will answer me, you will be useful! Do not speak; Only answer. That is your purpose now; to answer the question, and to be silent!” In an accidental surge of enthusiasm, the sharp beak, moving as the words were spit into the ear, nicked the captives neck, drawing blood. Images of having his throat torn out by the beast-man came unbidden to the captive’s mind, but he merely shrugged. After a moment’s silence, he felt the his captor pull away. With a stinging pain, he felt his weight again being held by the manacles, and almost found himself regretting the soft flesh’s withdrawal, despite the loathing he held for it.
“Why? I only live because of what your King wants to know. Do you think your sickening hide is enough motivation to give up my mission? You make my flesh crawl, but that’s more something I have about chocobos in general.”
His opened his eyes, straining to looking at his captor for the first time with any real, if somewhat inadequate, lighting. His eyes confirmed what his imagination had suggested. The wicked beak he had scene glinting in the moonlight was no mask. The spiky feathers that crowned off the top of the head, the angular features that were both human and bird that ended in a deadly beak, and the multitude of tactile sensations he’d felt pooled together to form conclusions which his mind had expected, but still was not braced for.
The sharply glaring azure eyes took in the nausea before glancing away into the shadows. All was dark on in the chamber’s side opposite the fire, but the firelight glinted off of armor, and the probing eyes. Delita stepped forward, without drawing the captive’s attention. With a gesture towards the prisoner, he ordered the interrogation to continue.
“You are alive because the King allows you to live. Each breath you take is his mercy, each second you see and hear are his generosity, and each moment your heart beats his sufferance. If you repay him with yet more insolence, then your mission and your life will be forfeit.”
“I only will defy him long enough to gain his attention.”
“Yet you won’t even tell me your name. What hope do you have to obtain the ear of the King in your condition when you choose to remain a nameless would-be assassin?”
“If I answer to you, I may exhaust my opportunity to speak with him altogether. My mission is out of time, and someone’s life may be lost. If my King wants to know my name, I will gladly tell it to him, along with my concise explanation. You are merely a monster; If all you were commanded was to find my name, the instant I give it I will perish.”
Delita spoke up before the bird-man could reply, causing the prisoner’s composure to fall instantly into chaos.
“A reasonable assumption I suppose. I’ll take you on your deal, then. Tell me your name, your rather obscure mission which involved committing treason against my person several times over. You’d best be very concise, as I wanted answers by this time. I should have known better than have him do this, as he’s far more used to being in your position than otherwise.” The disproval in the kings voice was enough to bow the birdman’s head, but the king merely laughed, gently clasping the feathered shoulder. “No need to worry, Algus. Your talents are quite excellent in other areas, and it seems he’s ready to explain himself.” He turned, and focused coldly on the prisoner. Drawing a deep breath while sagging painfully within his binds each moment, the prisoner acquiesced.
“Malak is my name.”
“Ah, the Hell Knight who aided Heretic Ramza. That would make you an enemy of the Church. And what made you decide to go against the Crown as well? Ramza would never associate with the unsavory.”
“In the Durandi Writings, it sounds like he associated with you.”
“Touché! And are you here because of the Writings? A vengeance against my methods, perhaps?” Visibly the King was growing irate, but inwardly his curiousity about the enigmatic Malak grew. He’d had little contact with any of Ramza’s allies since before the great conflict with the Church broke. A small hope grew that potentially he may learn something new about his one time best friend.
“I was more interested in the author, actually.”
“If you would have him autograph you copy, it would be worth a fortune on the black market. As it happens though, he’s no longer here. Upon publishing his book, he vanished. He’s wanted as a Heretic presently, so I assume he’s in hiding.”
“No, he was found. The Church is torturing him. He’s on trial for Heresy, and to execute him, they need only the King’s permission.”
“That is an interesting theory, as I’ve ordered the Inquisitors to halt their operation. So then, who is it that is holding this trial against my orders?”
“Zalmo, your highness. I believe you know him.”
“Indeed – I killed him. Do continue – I want to know your entire story before I begin to rip the truth out of your hide.”
“There is one more thing. I believe he’s after Olan because he wants the Germonik Scriptures. But he didn’t have them, as he’d already buried them, and left the location with me. It’s inside of a tomb.”
“The Scriptures...are the one thing the Church would probably defy me for. And they certainly would not be asking my permission as to who to kill for it. But whose tomb would Olan choose?”
“The tomb of Zalbag, brother to heretic Ramza.”
The king paused a moment, considering this information grimly. A similar mood descended over the bird-man’s features as well.
“And how exactly did you come to know of those events?”
“…Zalbag informed me when I reached Igros of what had transpired. I would have gone after the Inquisitors myself, except I have little power over those steeled with their faith. My skill is to manifest the doubt in one’s soul as a tangible ruin. So instead I sought a way to learn Olan’s location without involving myself with the Church until the key moment.”
“Let me test my understanding. You spoke with Zalbag, at his tomb no less.”
“No, at Igros Castle. The abandoned refuge of the knighthood the legendary Balbanes forged. Your former home at one time, now a ruin haunted by a restless demon that was once Ramza’s brother. He greeted me there with those tidings, but cannot leave that place.”
“There are rumors of Igros, your highness. Rumors of a phantom knight of great power that walks the abandoned halls. Perhaps something is there after all.”
“Or perhaps he’s merely piecing this all together as he goes along. I’ve not heard one believable, viable, truly telling piece of evidence fall from his lips. Just rumors, heresy, and the like. Is that all you have for me, Malak? I believe your ‘opportunity’ has passed.”
“He did speak to me about more than just the Scriptures. He also told me of your past, and a regret he holds to this day.”
“Ah, and this would be ‘proof’ of some sort, would it not? Out with it then. If you fail to inspire me, perhaps you’ll be sharing this room with my pet for some time. Perhaps as a pet yourself, Malak.”
Noting the horror carefully within the other man’s eyes, Delita spoke again, softly, soberly, without remorse. “Do not toy with me Malak. Your words had best ring sincere. And yes, that over there was once as human as you. Think carefully how you speak to someone with the power to make that your fate as well.”
Taking a moment to gather his thoughts, the Hell Knight glanced once more at the once human beast-man that regarded him silently a few feet away, noticing what could have been pity in the frozen eyes.
“There was a cold day when Zalbag led his forces into the mountains. There was a fort there, stocked with explosives. You were there, with Ramza, and a few others. Zalbag was forced with a decision; There was a hostage held high in the winds, and a madman threatening to detonate the whole works, killing everyone within range. There was a marksman there as well, a young soldier eager to achieve something. Zalbag looked into the girls face, and then ordered the marksman to take the shot. He tells me he hoped the shot would fly true, but the wind, perhaps the marksman’s own inability to focus with a crying girl before him, and perhaps fate itself, sided with a different outcome. The girl died nearly instantly, and the madman was wounded a few seconds later. Zalbag says in his eyes, he let the girl die before the shot even flew, as if the madmen entered the shack, everyone there would have died. But he wanted you to know something that no one else ever knew. He would have told the marksman to take the shot even if it had been Alma, or one of his brothers. Even if it had been himself. He said that was what made it the greatest sin of all – that had he only waited until Teta had been returned safely before attacking the Death Corps, he wouldn’t have let someone he loved die.”
Malak continued to breath heavily for a few moments, while the dark haired king hardly seemed to breath at all. When he looked back into the prisoner’s eyes, there was a faint glimmer.
“I’ve no reason to believe it, though. The good general turned away to handle another skirmish before her body even touched the ground.”
A rough voice answered from the shadows, Algus stepping forward, but then looking embarrassed as if not knowing if he had the right to do so.
“He was crying as he turned away from me, though I heard it turned into a rage when he reached the next wave of Death Corps. They say his blade gave death to thirty men in one hours time, and was still thirsty for more. His own men retreated back a ways to avoid getting in Zalbag’s way.”
Malak looked closely at the beast-man, before inadvertently speaking.
“The blonde marksman with eyes like the sky?”
“Yes,” remarked Delita dryly, a caustic attitude slowly becoming more apparent. “This is Algus, the one who shot Teta dead and dared to insult her. In recent times however, I’ve been avenging her. The fear she had as a prisoner, the betrayal out in the blizzard...Algus is now my pet, and his purpose is to suffer as my property. What greater lesson for someone who sees commoners as ‘animals,’ don’t you agree?”
“The punishment is fitting, master. I accept your will in all things.” The feathered visage looked pained as he said it, and lowered his head automatically in homage. The king glared, but shrugged it off.
“I offered him his freedom and humanity back, and the stupid bastard refused. He’s grown to hate himself as much as I hate him, which somehow made him all the more mine.”
“A fine line between hatred and affection, though.” Malak looked from one carefully guarded face to the other. “I mean, it’s pretty obvious you’ve been fucking him. I noticed the stains on the wall.”
There was a bloody sky that morning, with a foul wind sweeping through the last shadows of night. Malak, dressed in a black silk tunic that fit too well to both the body and the eye, nervously shifted as he watched the crimson dawn alone. His wounds hand mended at the softest touch of his would-be torturer. Soon after eating a hastily prepared meal of some meat-based dish by an exotic name, he came to wait uneasily at the Keep’s entry, taking a post at the cold stone steps. A young guard joined him, leading a large, pale feathered chocobo. Saddled, and loaded with supplies, the bird looked a little too familiar.
“It seems you have a few powerful friends, sir.”
Glancing the youth’s serious face over, Malak shrugged, and continued to study the bleeding horizon. Unperturbed, the lad continued to speak as he passed over the reigns into the Hell Knight’s hands.
“This one knows how to fight, and has more speed and stamina than any other bird I’ve ever scene. The stable boys call it the ‘Royal Pet’, as despite having it trained as any other, the King has never rode it. Quite the waste of potential to keep such an animal as a mere pet, but all the more good then that it serves a real purpose now.”
“I know for a fact that the King has ridden this bird many times, and stretched it to it’s full potential...” As the remark left his lips, an angry talon scuffed the dirt from the path up the stairs onto Malak’s well-polished boots, following up with an irate “kweh” that ended in a hiss. As the guard scolded the bird harshly, the sharp beak gave a snap in Malak’s direction, but the Hell Knight paid no heed. With a malicious smirk, Malak returned to his conversation with the bemused attendant.
“So what makes you so curious about me, kid?”
“I rarely meet someone who is friends with the King, and yet…not a noble.”
“Its probably far more common than you suspect.”
“You are a friend of King Delita’s, then?”
“Oh, after a fashion, my dear boy.” Malak assumed his most condescending tone, while inwardly trying not to laugh; This guard was barely a year younger than himself, and seemed torn as to how to behave.
“Lets just say the King would have me complete my task with efficiency, and this beast is to aid me to that end. I certainly did not come to this castle to eat cake and debate policy like some fool noble!”
Happy to get a chuckle out of his young friend, Malak mounted the bird with only a few indignities. Adjusting himself in the well cared for seat, he turned to regard the guard one more time. He could see the wispy blond hair and what may have been blue eyes glittering in the red morning’s shine.
“Allen, was it? Thanks for your trouble, and please thank your master for me again as well. And tell him I will take good care of his beast, though it will probably be the beast protecting me on this journey.”
“Very good, sir. Godspeed!”
Departing into the scarlet morning, Malak shook his head as the castle gates passed by. The ‘noble’ blood and the ‘commoner’ blood were indeed mixed at various points in history, but how strange it seemed to have a King who featured not a bit of the noble’s looks, who had a guard at the castle gates who could have passed for a prince with the right attire. The Hell Knight was unable to muse further as the bird he rode increased in pace greatly, and the capital of Ivalice became just a mirage in the hazy morning mist behind them.
Their progress had been rapid, but the tool it took was heavy on them both. Malak leaned wearily against an ancient tree, incidentally covering his sleek tunic with the emerald moss that lived there. His arms were limp with ache at holding on as the manic bird had rampaged ever onward.
Wearing the saddle, which converted into a belt and loin cloth combination of tightened leather, Algus strode back onto the dusty path. The sun shined between leaves over head, not quite at it’s zenith but well on it’s way, cast a sheen over the feathery body, drawing his companion’s eyes with almost a hypnotic quality.
Malak had noticed how hard the bird had been breathing, even coughing up something thicker than spit once he’d shifted into his near-human self, but after resting a bit and drinking from the nearby spring, the tension seemed all but gone in the sinewy limbs and massive shoulders. Despite already knowing what the giant chocobo really was, Malak still couldn’t hold in his shock at seeing his companion’s other form in daylight. The musculature was solid and massive, shaping a masculine frame, a form that all at once invited touch as being soft and pliable, but flexing and bulged, admitting the nature beyond the feathery down.
The Hell Knight was taken back, acutely aware that despite the his companions monstrous side, he was still a half naked, powerfully built male. Sipping from a silver canteen something stronger than water, Algus tried to ignore the other man’s scrutiny. He was already aware of how tight and smooth the Hell Knight’s body felt, the way it clenched in on itself in revolution each time he’d brushed the man’s chest with his own. It had occurred to him at some point that their dance had been nearly an equal exchange of torture, and hand ended rather abruptly with Malak’s remark about something on the wall. Something which made the beast-man’s stomach weak with the inescapability that his companion knew the truth, and could see it now staining every downy feather.
“Do you enjoy being revolted by me? Why stare at something that hurts your eyes as much as I?”
“I rather hate the chocobos, you see. Silly, smelling birds, prone to squawk, snap, and otherwise make nuisances of themselves. So…”
“Then why are you looking at me, Malak? The trees, the ground – why not look at those things instead?”
“Tsk. I wasn’t finished just yet! Having said that, I still feel like I want to know you, as we are allies, and may very well die trying to protect one another. And I find it a lot easier to look at you when you’re like this than when you’re just a bird.”
“Are you afraid of chocobos, perhaps? You held very tightly, so ridged that we both were pained far more than was necessary. Did you think I would throw you, or snap your fingers off?”
Malak thought a moment before answering the ragged voice, considering each question in turn.
“I never have felt at ease with a chocobo, but the knowledge that you weren’t one really seemed to help. I don’t mean to offend you just by looking at you, but seeing you like this makes me see certain things differently.”
“Such as? Give me an example.”
“I don’t feel like it. Hey…Can you answer a few questions I have. You know…about chocobo stuff?”
Noticing the black expression that formed on the angular features, Malak whistled, turning to look down the trail.
“I guess I’m ready. Time to head on?”
He felt a gentle touch on his shoulder, before the bulky birdman was at his side.
“I’ll hear your question, Malak.”
“I’ve been wondering about why you smell so differently now than a few minutes ago. It’s as if you can change your scent at will.”
Algus became very still, but a low voice finally emerged, each word reluctantly released.
“Chocobo’s smell because they communicate through scents and sounds. Danger, fear, sadness, excitement – each a particular flavor, with countless textures of combination.”
“I see. So the way you smelled when Delita came into the chamber, and began to question me himself…That’s the way Delita makes you feel.” Malak gave himself a shake, after a moment looking at his companion’s blank features. “I have to admit that was the first time I smelled something of a chocobo that didn’t make me want to vomit. A sweat scent, like that of blooming flowers in spring just after the rain. It reminded me of my village…without depressing me.”
He touched the soft feathers of Algus’s belly, hesitant at first, but moved in slow circles as he felt the creature slowly exhale. He'd remembered the gesture from their encounter back at the castle, and was surprised the simple gesture could bring such a powerful reaction out of the man-beast.
“I know you belong to Delita, but I want you to relax Algus. You’re only his because you choose to be, and he knows this. You mean a great deal to him. When I attacked him with my power, he resisted a great deal because of his faith in you. You make him believe he’s powerful, that he’s strong. Just as he’s made you believe that you are worth nothing unless you serve him.”
Algus reacted to the circling hand, letting it ease over his chest, caressing his shoulders to peacefully hang.
“You said your skill touches on the doubts within the mind.”
“I bend my perception so as to use your own against you. But besides playing with what is doubted, I also can tell what is certain. It’s true that he can’t bring himself to trust you, or you to trust in him. So he treats you like shit to see if you still love him, and you take his shit to prove you still love him. Not wildly healthy, but it’s real enough.”
“Yeah, as in that while he vented on you for breaking in on his ceremony at the garden, he wasn’t about to actually kill you. I don’t even know if he could bring himself to.”
“He’s beaten me for less.”
“And that would be more of a punishment if you did not enjoy being beaten, taking his aggression into yourself, proving your worthiness for his hatred.”
With lightning speed, Malak reached over his bulky companion for the silver canteen, and stole a swallow before the startled Algus could react.
“Well then, thanks for clearing up the smell issue for me. But I’ve got to save someone who means as much to me as your master to you.”
The azure eyes narrowed, finding this hard to believe.
“Even as much as the wall in my chamber suggested?”
“Oh, we’ve had our fun. Ruined an entire banquet hall.”
“I see…Then get on.”
With a twist, the saddle was on the broad backside. Assuming a sprinter’s stance, he waited while Malak replaced the canteen. The Hell Knight looked quizzically at the half-choboco, uncertain as what to do next.
“Well, lets depart. You’ll find I can run far faster in this form, and I have more than enough strength to carry you as well. Hold loosely, and ride with my body instead of fighting it.”
At the Hell Knight’s doubtful look, the beak snapped in impatience.
“I’m trusting you enough to let you ride me like this, something I’ve never done with even Delita, and you refuse?”
“You’re the first chocobo I’d ridden in years, and now this. At least your smell has improved after our chat.”
Mounting the half-beast, Malak felt his legs clasped by the strong arms. Algus leaned forward, pulling Malak upright, tightly into the leather saddle. Taking off at ludicrous speed, the pair raced onward, Malak letting his body move with the choco-man’s. Feeling the trust in the Hell Knight’s body being communicated by the other man’s posture, it was easy for the powerful body to accommodate his passenger, adjusting to ensure the fast passing branches cleared without incident. Great chunks of dirt were thrown as the talons tore through the forest path, and in a few minutes time as much distance had been covered as in the past few hours of the journey.
Halting for a moment, Algus breathed a question to his rider.
“So, should we continue like this, or go back to as before? My strength will last far longer like this, but only if you can continue to ride as well as now.”
“This is great! We’ll be at New Murond inside of a day at this rate, maybe even before nightfall. You’re incredible.” Under his breath, he added “and an incredible turn on…” The steady rhythm, the way the powerful forces of each turn and twist were converted by the graceful body into a mere caress, had made the Hell Knight’s loins quite excited in spite of his efforts to keep relaxed. While Algus hadn’t felt his friend’s interest because of the thick leather saddling, his hearing was quite acute as a half – chocobo.
“Glad you approve so.”
He started off again, holding his passenger a little tighter unconsciously. Malak’s chest brushed his mount’s shoulders from time to time, prompting the Hell Knight to breath in close for a moment. Breathing in a familiar smell, a grin crossed the Hell Knight’s face.
The darkness parted after what seemed like an eternity. Too sore to sleep, too exhausted to struggle against his bonds, the prisoner had little to do but bleed and ache. His beatings had been rather insidiously engineered around the fact that no matter how badly his body was mangled, the expert staff on hand could mend him enough to survive another round.
The Inquisition was not known for incompetence in their craft.
His mid length black hair was still tied back as he had that day, the last day he remembered actually seeing the sun. His clothing and body were equally torn, and a few of the deeper bruises occasionally drew his attention. Forced to stand for the past two weeks, his feet chained to the dias in the center of the dank chamber of stone, while his arms were likewise chained high above, time had passed slowly for the military tactician, getting his first real experience of the inhumanity possible behind closed doors.
He became aware that he was no longer alone. The light that had ended the perpetual night of the cell came from the entry way, which had opened enough to allow a elderly priest in. Balding and with a slight stoop, the priest’s features where hidden in shadow, as the light reflected off of the white robes of the Examiner.
“I’m afraid the will of St. Ajora cannot be waylaid any longer, Heretic Olan. You have offered no proof for your claims against our very providence, and even now spit in the face of our most sacred of institutions. For such blasphemy…can you blame our taking of such measures? What says the Heretic, now that his end has come at last?”
“My death will serve as proof enough to the people’s minds. If not this generation, than a forthcoming one will take up my cause and finish what has begun.”
“A traitor, a sinner, and a unrepentant heretic hardly inspires anything with his death but for the faithful to draw ever tighter together. You offer no proof, even though you claim to have read the Germonik Scriptures yourself. If they truly exist, then you should be able to produce them in your defense.”
“I’ll still not be telling you where they reside, no matter how many ways you ask me. It would be truly fool-hearty to give the Church the very thing that reveals its many lies, even for my life.”
“So you keep repeating, day by day. You’re starved, thirsty, and on the brink of passing out. Yet you won’t listen to reason, even as life fades from your body. Do you think hiding the Scriptures is the path to revealing the truth? Do you think anyone will listen to a Heretic, the false son of a general labeled a traitor, who speaks against the most holy of orders without any evidence other than his last words?”
Licking his cracked lips, Olan didn’t respond. His throat had started to burn as he talked, and now he merely listed to one side in silence, not looking at the impatient figure anymore.
“It seems pain will not bring the truth out of you, nor depriving you of your needs. Look at you, covered in your own stinking excrement. The stench of your hearsay will be easy to turn the heads of the people, and as a dying wretch burned at the stack, you will be no different than any other. It seems the King no longer protects you; not surprising as you betrayed his trust so blatantly in every page of your text. So if you wish for mercy or you wish to die, this will be the last time the Church will attempt to save you from your own damnation. Where have you hidden the Scriptures?”
The Inquisitor waited for a moment, and then left with a curse. The light vanished, but the youth’s eyes had already closed before the darkness returned. His mind wandered to vague memories of his adopted father, the great general “Thunder God” Cid, who had vanished along with Ramza after a great confrontation with the darkness of the Zodiac Stones. While he’d pieced together as much of the story as he could, there was still a few things left unfinished. The defeat of the Zodiac Braves was evident, as the world did not end in darkness as it had seemed on the brink of doing. Yet, the heroes seemed scattered and reclusive, hunted enemies of the Church. Only he, a observer from the sidelines, had dared to come forward to denounce the Church and Crown, in secret with the King’s blessing.
Delita had asked him if he was willing to die for the truth, holding him at sword point. Swearing it was so, Olan found himself freed from his servitude within the castle, not followed or pursued.
How he had been captured by the Inquisitor remained a blurry in his minds eye, but he was convinced it involved a lot of pain, and several people dying. Phantom, fleeting images passed before the eyes, staring into the darkness. After a time, the light returned in the entry way. Knights of the church, the same who had taken an interest in beating the righteousness into his body with the utmost vigor now unhooked the chains that were overhead, jerking his body forward.
It occurred a few painful moments later they had to unshackle the prisoner’s feet as well if they hoped to move him from the chamber in one piece. Olan screamed inadvertently, feelings of agony that his body had tried to hide bursting forward as he moved for the first time in days. He was aware that there was light surrounding him, burning so bright his eyes shut instinctively.
“Aw, he still looks alive even after all that. He barely lost any weight, and we sure hadn’t been feeding him!”
“He can move time or some crock. He can barely talk, so his spell shouldn’t be a problem for us.”
“He can still scream. Damned heretic, this is only the beginning of the torment your soul will have for eternity!”
The guards’ voices seemed to fade, and another voice was heard. Whispering, as if as breathless as himself. The words were hard to make out, but somehow made perfect sense even without meaning. They were words that named emotions and memories, words that Olan remembered hearing one time long ago, the first time he had been made a prisoner. The whispering stopped. Opening his eyes, trying to see the source of the sound, he realized his captors had already taken him outside. Unaware of anything but the brightness for a moment, his musings were jarred out of him as he was thrown into the back of a wagon. Rolling to his side as another wave of agony passed from his shoulder through to his front, where he now suspected a cracked rib or two, Olan’s eyes focused on a dark, shiny shape a few inches from his face. The whispers came again, softer, more intimate than before. A Guard’s voice came from over head, as the wagon began to move.
“We’re taking you to the Golgoron Execution Site, a place where you can join the others that betrayed St. Ajora. Look around on our way there, as this is the same path our Lord was taken, and will be the last things you see before you’re sent to receive His Judgment.”
The whispers formed into a more coherent voice, which spoke softly to Olan alone.
“Ah, the Church is fond of burying truths there. I would have guessed that was where they would take you, but I needed to know for certain. But now I’ll bring those fools a judgment they’ve long in coming…Please trust in me, Olan. Rest now, but be ready when the time comes.”
The shiny form coalesced in Olan’s vision into a small river toad, which hopped off the wagon and out of site a moment later. The whispers faded with it, but he still felt coy touch in his mind where another’s had been for an instant.
“He said something, sir. Think he’s trying to cast a spell on us?”
“He’s barely conscious. I bet he won’t even know what’s going on until he’s coughing on the smoke from his own charred limbs.”
The conversation ended once again, while the young man continued to wonder how much of his perception to trust in, how much was merely delusion spawned by the hopelessness of the moment. Deciding to take the voice’s advice anyway, he tried to rest, and found it surprisingly easier with even the most cursorily of hopes. He drifted into a light sleep, enjoying the gentle touch of the sunshine on his cheek.
The Hell Knight’s fury contaminated the very air with the smell of sweat and anger. He paced back and forth beside a small garden wall, momentarily not caring if he was discovered, as he shaped a plethora of curses against the Church that made even the massive half-man at his side shiver.
“He – they reduced him to- to – He was so precise, so immaculate, and they – those sniveling zealots – stupid ignorant dead men – they’re trying to ruin him, his perfect mind, his – his body – they were killing him so slowly that even they became bored, and now – now they think they can give him to the fire? I’ll burn them all from the inside out!”
“But you said yourself that your skill is not like magic. You can manipulate the perceptions of those with doubts in their hearts with your own, but those fools have no room for negotiations. They are single-minded, zealous in their faith. We must use caution, Malak.”
“Then I’ll break the bastards limbs one by one, tear them off myself and feed them to the blaze individually.”
“You…are not in control of yourself. Your friend’s suffering has angered you too much to be of any use to him.”
“You’d be calm if it was Delita being carted off in his own shit? To be burned at the stake, no less! I – I need to stop his hurting, I need to avenge his pain!”
“He should feel better knowing you’re nearby. He can wait a little longer.”
“But he doesn’t understand! Your fucked up deal with Delita is nothing compared to the complications we’ve got going, and I don’t think we can discuss the issue in detail right now! We know where they are going; I want to ambush them, and send every one of them straight to St. Ajora!”
A knight rounded the wall, hearing enough of Malak’s last remark to draw his sword. Without hesitation, the Hell Knight drew a multifaceted rod carved of wood from where it was slung behind his back, and deflected the blade from his neck into the wall behind. Reversing his grip, he bashed the startled face across the temple, spinning the knight into the ground, bruised and unconscious. Algus nodded appraisingly, the opponent having not even noticed his presence.
“Feel a little better now?”
“Then let’s go get Olan. Remember our goal is two fold; We must save him as our first priority, but we also need to identify the Inquisitor.”
“And what do we do if its Zalmo, just as I said?”
“Delita asks we bring back his head, and burn the rest.”
“Then once Olan is safe, we will fulfill our King’s command to the letter.”
“Agreed, my friend.”
A few citizen’s of New Murond were given pause by the site of the mysterious stranger in black riding the rather large chocobo at break neck speed out of town. Just out of sight, the bird assumed a much larger, faster form of the half-beast, and dodging through the forest bypassed the condemned and his escorts from a distance. Even then, seeing the tattered form of the tactician he’d held so respected within his mind’s eye for years being covered in filth and injuries, made him urge his mount even faster, squeezing tightly at the half-beasts sides unconsciously. The man-beast tightened his powerful grips on his passenger’s legs.
“They are already dead, Malak. Just let them walk about a few paces more.”
The Hell Knight nodded, even though his mount wouldn’t notices the gesture.
A few yards later, the pair reached the historic ruins of the most historic execution in the history of the Church. The Inquisitor arrived mere moments before the condemned, appearing from thin air next to a few startled knights.
“The final verdict has already been delivered to Holy Murond, and we’ve still the authority to execute this man without the King’s approval. The Church has never validated King Delita’s commands to end our activities, and as we do the will of St. Ajora, we will not be intimidated to halt His will now!”
Olan found himself waking as he was bound upright to the great wooden shaft. Without preamble or ceremony, the Inquisitor tossed a glass flask against the tinder gathered around the stake, which released a clear liquid as it shattered. The glistening droplets ignited into flame as they touched the wood, the wave of rising heat that resulted stealing what painfully little breath Olan had.
The Knights seemed somewhat shocked too, never having before seen such an efficient execution.
“Now boy, if you do not speak where the Scriptures are held, it will be as if they burned with you here and now.”
Inhaling more of the searing air, Olan was unable to respond. The priest moved closer, braving the quickly spreading flames, but before he was able to speak again, all was in chaos.
Twilight, the moon hanging still in a sky scared with lightning on the horizon. Delita’s most trusted men feared the storm far less than their current mission, but the unhappy murmurs were hidden by the nearing thunder. Igros Castle was a distant local to traverse to from the Lesalia Capital, far to the west with nearly every temperament en route. By magical means, the trip was far less physically taxing. But while in a moment’s breath they had traveled a distance normally requiring several weeks or months, the final few miles by foot seemed longer than any imaginable distance. They were nearing a place thought cursed more than any other, where tragedy and mystery ruled an empty countryside.
Igros Castle was once Delita’s home, long ago when he was a peasant under the care of Balbanes. Raised to serve the lord’s youngest son, Ramza, he instead came to be best of friends with him, until the events that left a young girl dead and a young man swearing revenge. The Hokuten Knighthood was centered in Igros originally, under the command of Balbanes. With his death, the position fell to Dycedorg, his eldest son. And with a few more betrayals the Hokuten Knighthood was ended, the white lion crest buried, and old Igros abandoned as people sought more pleasant, prosperous surroundings.
“Sir, our scouts reported the castle grounds were in decay. It may be unsafe to venture inside the structure.”
“I note things have changed substantially since I was here last, but my main interest is in verifying the tomb of Lord Zalbag.”
“Their family burial grounds have no marker for him, or his brothers.”
“I wonder then if they are truly dead – surely the Hokuten cared enough about their masters to provide for something.”
“Most of the Hokuten died, my lord. Many at our hands, but the rumors say those in Igros suffered a hideous fate.” The brown eyes narrowed into an angry scowl, glancing over at the speaking knight, and through him.
“The rumors are numerous and irritating. I’m interested in what was seen or heard by the scouts. We will search the ruins, even make camp in them if we need to!”
If anyone wanted to disagree with the King, they were wise enough not to show it. This mission had been ordered as voluntary, and most secret. Delita showed great generosity when he rewarded such missions, but the terms that came attached were usually as mysterious as why such tasks were ordered in the first place.
Privately, he wondered what it would mean if he did obtain the Scriptures. By validating Olan’s story, even to himself alone, he would have to accept the Church’s wrongdoings. And should they realize he had them, they would be his enemy always.
Deciding such a prospect was a desirable one, Delita chuckled softly. The knights followed quickly into the ruins of Igros, led by an King both steeped in memories of the past, and curiosity about the future.
The Glabados Church had invested a great deal of effort into producing warriors suited to persuading with physical force and skill, who were still instilled with a deep faith in God – and ultimately the Church itself. Even so, the first surprised guard had no time to react as a giant orange-scaled claw seized his neck from behind, throwing him backwards into a stone wall which quickly ended the knight’s conscious role in the battle. His companion was actually cut by one of the sharp talons of the claw while it had twisted in it’s throw – which was actually more of a kick, and as a trickle of blood leaked from the shallow gash across his cheek, he looked up to see the graceful landing of a strange feathered creature. He would have drawn his sword if at that moment if his brain hadn’t already started to process the monster. The human and chocobo features were too incompatible to be fully comprehended, and he always had been the queasy sort. Passing out as the beaked face turned his way, he collapsed onto his crumpled friend, curiously falling into an unconscious embrace that was nearly scandalous.
While taken back, the other knights hesitated only a moment more before challenging the beast, yet found it’s quick movements difficult to follow.
A small blue orb arced through the air, striking the Inquisitor in the temple. It exploded into a hazy mist, which formed into an ice shard roughly the size of the priest, just above his balding head. It spun as if on an axis, before spiraling downward. Reacting, Zalmo shattered and deflected the ice with his staff, leaving him angry and startled but otherwise unharmed. Malak stood high above the ensuing fray, having already thrown another orb and waiting to see its effects. Easily dodging the attack this time, Zalmo was disappointed to find he wasn’t at all the intended target; The orb struck the top of the stake where Olan had been tied, the cold blades of ice neatly falling off to the sides and into the blaze. Quickly the fire smoldered, a cool breeze bathing the face of the priest even has his face filled with a bloody rage. Another knight was unconscious, receiving a great kick from Algus even as the chimera showed off excellent swordplay to the remaining foes. Even though he was wearing hardly any armor, he was fast enough to narrowly escape the blades of the increasingly desperate swordsmen. Landing blow after blow with his fists, and occasionally a viciously powerful kick, it was soon clear the chimera wasn’t tiring.
Zalmo and Olan were but a few yards away. Avoiding the knights and their struggle with Algus, Malak confronted the priest, readying his own staff.
“This is unthinkable - Unforgivable!” The old man spat the words, his features assuming a more ugly expression of ill will than usual. Malak grinned, focusing on the figure past the priest, and then returning to Zalmo.
“I believe this show is over. I’ll be taking Olan now.”
“An interesting thought – but I’ve yet to obtain that which he is withholding.”
“You were about to execute him! What would he say after that?”
“Well, I can be excitable. Now then, do you know where the Scriptures are?”
The old man gestured threateningly to the bound prisoner. “If you’re here for him, then tell me where the Scriptures are, and I’ll be on my way.”
Malak tried to step forward, but found himself halted by the menacing priest’s gestures. Circling darkness quickly materialized about Olan’s feet, spreding over the smoldering embers of the would-be pyre.
“Or would you care see his very soul, rend from the still-living flesh? Its something I’ve yet to see too, and those past few days especially, its been a difficult temptation to resist!”
Malak’s face paled with growing horror. The unearthly darkness halted its advance, but Olan’s face was contorted in silent pain.
“You aren’t human after all…”
“I am well beyond such foolishness. I am undying, chosen and blessed by the heaven high! You will reveal the Scriptures to me, or he will die first, and then you. I cannot be lied to, so decide quickly your course of action.”
“What would I have to gain by telling you?”
“I will leave. Of course, those other fellows will remain. But trust me, you’ve no chance against I, guided by the will of St. Ajora himself. It is the Lord’s will that I bring him the Scriptures; Aid me, and it will be an easy blessing to spare you for now.”
The priest graciously, each word clearly enunciated with the blandest of emotion. His jaws hung open slightly, as if in awe at something only his elderly eyes could see. Malak carefully gauged the distance.
A blade sang through the air as it passed overhead, a few trailing feathers following from where it had parted Algus’s shoulder. No blood followed, the knight noted with a curse.
“It’s nearly impossible to see where his flesh begins! How thick is this stuff?”
Futher comments weren’t possible as the knight found himself upside down, Algus’s firm grasp pinning him against the stone wall. More knights were arriving, a few helping the injured limp away as the others continued forward. No one seemed to notice the commotion at the executioner’s platform at all. To the three there, the sounds of battle seemed distant and unreal.
“Zalmo, if you want to trade, then you will back off.” The old priest looked hard at the angry eyes of his challenger, but nodded slowly. The shadows fell away from the bound man’s feet, though he still jerked in pain. The priest grinned again, folding his hands into his robes, waiting patiently.
“See? I know truth from falsehood – I know you mean what you say, but lo – I comply with your need. Your friend is as well as can be expected – or is it friendship? Ah, such rumors have circled about the adopted son of the late TG. Cid. That his crimes were steeped in more than heresy.”
After a few moments of impassive silence, he continued, as if reading from a book. “No…yes…maybe something. You don’t even know yourself, and yet you’ve come this far. Well, lad. There isn’t much farther to go. If you don’t even know, why not ask Olan himself? Soon, your other ally will be overpowered my by very eager soldiers, and then all will be for naught. Why not trust in me this much, and tell me of the Scriptures. Then you can take Olan, and escape. If it isn’t already too late.”
The young man grimly looked past the laughing face, taking in Olan’s crumpled form one more time. He spoke at a measured tone, lowly, though he knew his opponent could still hear in the din of the battle by some unholy means.
“It may be already too late, Zalmo. You can tell I speak the truth – then listen well; If the King hasn’t the Scriptures already, he soon will!”
He watched the older man’s jaw fall slack, the eyes becoming wily for a moment. Something inside the Hell Knight cringed, seeing the inhuman contortions of the old man’s forehead, as if the skull were adjusting it’s position beneath the priest’s scalp.
“You insolent fool!”
Fast, but not enough to catch the assassin unwary, Zalmo closed the distance and lashed out with his staff, the glint of it’s sharpened point splitting the stone it struck. He turned it upward in a thrust, but the blow was blocked by Malak’s own rod. His muscles bunched, forcing his strength against the unnatural might of the priest. Suddenly changing his posture, he let the priest slide past him, shattering a glinting red orb against the balding head before throwing towards Olan. The air erupted into flames about he priest, even as he caught his feet and returned towards the hell knight, the elderly form bending at strange angles as he seemingly shrugged off the attack. While the robes were clearly burned, Zalmo showed no injury to his person.
“It seems you’re not going to go down easy, Zalmo.”
“It is the will of God that this world be cleansed – I cannot be defied so easily!”
“Get rid of the knights, and I’ll tell you where the Scriptures were.”
“You think you are in a position to bargain!?”
“You’re the one who lost your cool. And why would I bargain for something without any guarantee – without your knights, we could take you. Without our information, you don’t have any chance at getting the Scriptures…”
Zalmo’s face lit in recognition of this fact. His simultaneously emotionless yet somehow eager expression return, and smoothed his robes with a gnarled hand.
“Yes, yes of course. I can offer you that much.”
The knights fell one after the other, feeling for a mere moment their very life being ripped away by a passing shade. Algus ended up catching two of them, as they pitched forward. Their lips were ashen and trembling. He had felt the cold presence of something his mind refused to see passby, and then the once living and healthy men were merely corpses. Even the ones he’d already defeated, who had been attempting to escape, were now so much litter. Setting the men down carefully, he turned to his side and vomited.
Malak had a hand on Olan’s chest. Feeling the shaky rise of breath fill the young man’s lungs, he turned to face Zalmo again.
“You didn’t have to kill them.”
“Why are you so very problematic, boy – They were your enemy, and now they are a sacrifice to St. Ajora. They deserved no less an honor – they prayed for such a death, I assure you.”
He leaned forward, intently looking at the chimera who was approaching. He came beside Malak and Olan, warily watching the priest.
“So now you understand – surely, you must tell me where the Scriptures are – or were. Your lives or deaths are hardly my concern – all will be judged by St. Ajora anyway – but the Scriptures are everything. If you so choose, I may take your lives here and now. Or you can tell me what I want to know.”
“I don’t really care for assholes who kill their own servants, not usually that trustworthy. So swear you will let us go, and while you’re at it, save those men’s lives...swear by St. Ajora, the Bloody Angel of Chaos, and remember, I can tell if you doubt your own words. You see, I’ve a skill of my own.”
Shifting slightly, Zalmo gave the youth an appraising glance.
“I swear. So be it.” He sounded tired, if not a little annoyed.
“Then, last I heard, the Scriptures were at Igros Castle.”
Algus sucked in his breath, but didn’t otherwise complain. Zalmo gave a nod, thinking this information over. He looked at Olan, who was still passed out, and then gazed back into Malak’s deep eyes with a look that seemed both dead and all too alive.
“Ironic, but by so saving Olan, you also defeated his purpose. Just so you know, I’m forsworn to St. Ajora – no vow can come before that. But not to worry; The Bloody Angel agrees with your bargain as well…”
The laughing old man vanished, as a white light shined from the skies above. The knights awoke, weak and confused, but living. None stood to bar the passage of the three who left the square except one.
“What – what happened here?”
“The execution of Olan – carried out by Inquisitor Zalmo.”
“Impossible – the Inquisitor died five years ago!”
“Then don’t ask me, I just work here.” Malak walked away, helping hold the unconscious Olan mounted on top of a large chocobo.
When the reports of the strange execution reached the Holy City, the news was well received by the extremists who would have wanted it in the first place. But in the highest order of the temple’s warriors, that of the Shine Knights, a young woman’s suspicions grew, and she made ready to leave. She drew her cloak of ocean green over her armor, and hastened down the corridor. Too late she realized, hearing the tired voice call out to her from the shadows.
“You will not take me with you?”
“Brother, you have your own task. I will satisfy my curiosity this way.”
“The Church is in shambles – especially with this latest debacle. How can you leave now of all times?”
“And so you want me to take you as well? At any rate, Kletian is leader of the Shrine Knights now, and he agrees I must look into those matters personally.”
“That’s only because he looks up to your experience – if you told him it would be good to burn the place down he’d start chanting up hell itself-”
A cool voice drifted down the corridor, interrupting the conversation without seeming at all intrusive.
“I am most flattered that you trust in my powers, if not in my judgment. But we’ve matters to attend to, and your sister must be on her way.”
Nodding, the warrior walked away wordlessly, drawing her cloak closely around her as she stepped out under the evening sky. Back in the shadows of the corridor, the two voices continued.
“So she goes to the execution site.”
“Because that is where Zalmo was last seen.”
“Then you are sure it was him.”
“Oh yes. Yes, it must be so.”
“Then why send her alone?”
“She’s going to where he was, to assess what has happened there, and perhaps pick up the trail of Olan. He might hold a clue as to the whereabouts of his father, and thus Ramza.”
“And what are we to do in the meantime?”
“Oh, I didn’t want to bring this part up with your sister. She might have disagreed with such a risky and insane plan, but as I intend to do it anyway…”
He paused, breathing deeply for a moment.
“We’re going where Zalmo sent himself to from the execution; Igros Castle. The less people who know about this, the less needed to be explained.”
“I see. We’ll be on our own with it.”
“Yes. Just us, I should think. And perhaps the Hokuten...”
Memories and whispers circled his every step. Delita glanced about the ruined study, noting the ornate carvings of the fireplace now had grown frail. The soft rain fell through the shattered windows, and seeped through the irregular ceiling as well. One knight commented the place had survived an earthquake, but later amended that it had “almost survived.”
Sweating inside the elegant armor, feeling his mantel chaff around the neck at some uneven seam, Delita stepped carefully around the wreckage, back through the shattered doorframe into another offshoot of the great hall.
“Igros Castle…I had to see it with my own eyes, you see.” His voice was heavy with emotion. His warriors simply escorted him onward, attempting to make the exploration as safe as possible for their liege. All efforts to convince him to turn back had failed thus far, as had all efforts to locate the Tomb of Zalbag. While trying not to complain, the company was becoming increasingly anxious as the night drew more heavily across the sky, the winds picking up with the storms increasing anger.
Then, finding the courtyard littered with debris from the upper tower’s collapse, Delita sat. The dried up water way was once a fountain that interjected about the garden path, a peaceful place his minds eye still saw clearly. Alma and Teta, telling him about their schooldays, Ramza and Zalbag discussing their father’s worsening condition, and other moments passed before his eyes once again.
His reflection was brief; In the end, only Teta was his family. Though even now he still wondered at the meaning of Ramza.
“You know, I hate gardens. They are difficult for me to judge.”
“Sir? I’m not sure I follow.” The knight captain waved the crew onward, continuing carefully with the survey. A startled yell now and then, followed by muttered curses, marked the knights’ progress through the decrepit fortress. Turning back to his King, the young captain looked intently in the shadows.
“Come now, you’ve known me long enough to suspect, Rad.” Delita looked seriously at the boyish knight, whom returned the gaze blankly.
“Your highness, I’m not sure this is an appropriate topic for us to discuss. By your leave….”
“A moment, Sir Rad. I’ve noticed that this is not your first time here either. Tell me; Were you perhaps a member of the Hokuten before selling you skills to the Machinist Guild? I’ve no knowledge of your experience before that, though you’ve shown great merit in every battle I’ve seen you in.”
“Thank you, Majesty. But the only Knighthood I’ve belonged to was the Nanten, from near after when you assumed command with the loss of Cid, and refused to name a new general.”
“It was a concern more than a complement. Your navigating a ruin that you’ve seen whole; Explain.” His tone was more inquisitive than threatening, though that did little to fill the young knight with confidence. Delita looked closely at his features, noting how slid in and out of composure, trying to hide confusion and fear that few others would have been able to notice. Yet Delita was skilled in reading a person, well versed in the techniques of intrigue. He decided to relieve the tension before the Knight felt the trust between them was undermined.
“Sir Rad, I gave you your position because I have great confidence in you, and that has not changed. But my past is in this place, and so should we have shared some prior moment, I would rather be reminded then leave it buried. That is all.”
“Sir. The Knights under command of Baron Grimms came from many previous loyalties, but it is quite fortunate that you were able to join them despite having been from this region.”
Delita froze. His false claim to a noble heritage was exactly what he had been edging Rad about, and having it thrown so blatantly back momentarily prevented the King from replying. The Nanten Knighthood had several branches, and those led by the Baron had died with only a single survivor – Delita, or so the Church aided him in establishing. It seemed safe at the time as the reclusive Baron was unfamiliar to any, his Knights made up of the most minor of lords, the borderline aristocracies who still would bear arms and title.
But the idea that someone from Igros Castle would join the Nanten Knights in any fashion was considered an irregularity, and the last thing Delita wanted was anymore interest in his lineage.
Rad shifted his weight, unconsciously rubbing his shoulder in thought despite the fact it was plated with armor. He spoke again, after eye contact with the wary King.
“My story is far less…cohesive. I was just a mercenary, hired by Gafgarion along with some deserter of the Hokuten. I then moved on to brighter things.”
The pieces rushed together in perfect focus. Delita visibly relaxed, which had the effect of relaxing the young knight as well. A bit of red hair drifted into the knight’s eyes, which he removed carefully.
“I see. And after that bastard’s death, you continued with this deserter, a young noble of the Hokuten.”
“For a time.”
“Ah, the Church would have your head for even having spoken with that particular noble. Of course, he was my closest friend.”
“I know. He felt the same.”
“Do you…know…” The King gestured, not wanting or needing to verbalize the question.
“No, I did not get to stay on for the entire journey. He became involved in so many plots, made so many allies and enemies…Though if he had any need of me, I wouldn’t have hesitated to return. But no, I can’t say where he is now. Except…There is a rumor he was an unexpected guest.”
“Oh, a guest at what?”
“His own funeral.”
It was at this moment that a heavy breathing knight returned to report. He was one of the more aged and experienced, but seemed more than visibly shaken; He was barely standing still.
“Sir, my lord, we bring a message from the east wall.”
Delita exchanged a meaningful glance with Rad, who began to interrogate the elderly knight at length.
“What do you mean, the east wall? We’ve found something there?”
“Yes sir, the wall. It’s speaking!”
“The wall is able to speak.”
“It whispers, sir, and it was very insistent!”
Others soon returned with similar reports. There was whispering within the stone and wood of every room and chamber, quiet at first, but grew louder should someone listen for any length of time.
Rad returned to the King, who was listening to the vague whisper himself, hearing the softly spoke words even amidst the excited Knights. The King was kneeling down, examining something on the ground.
“Your highness, what does it mean? What is the ‘Reed Flute’?”
“More interesting Sir Rad, have you noticed that the rain falls, yet we do not feel it? As we entered, it fell about us plainly, but now, though I can see it…I no longer feel it’s touch, or hear it’s impact.”
Rising, he held a reed, one of the many weeds that had grown in the untended garden. As the King brought it to his lips, a dull sound was called forth. It was messy and anxious, unstable and unmistakable. The knights drew quiet, and as the king’s breath ran out, an answering sound was heard. It had come from behind, somewhere within the halls of Igros. Delita played the call again, and a second time it was answered.
“We follow the sound of the reed. Let us reenter the castle proper.”
The journey ended before the entrance to the audience room. One major feature that had been missing before was the great doors into the chamber. Or rather, they were present, but in broken pieces and covered in the grim that had invaded the palace from outside.
But the doors now were as polished as ever, perfectly restored. Looking back, Delita noted the hallway was likewise revised, despite his having just entered the ruined way a moment ago. The reed sounded again from beyond the doors. Delita looked at Rad’s face, and studied his resolve.
“There is something unnatural afoot. All be ready, for anything.”
“My lord, it may be best that you go no further.”
“Look behind us, Rad. The way back has changed as well. We are within this spell thoroughly, and though there may be danger, we are all warriors here. I am King because I’m willing to fight for Ivalice myself if need be. As I will not see my rule end like this, let every man be as cautious as brave, and bring honor to the Nanten.”
“Yes, your highness.” Ever man and women nodded his agreement, steeling themselves. The door was opened easily by touch, as if as light as air. The resplendent room that awaited the company seemed a far cry from before, and the nostalgia that had been in the back of Delita’s mind came rushing forward.
He found himself alone, a small boy in a wide, great space. Light fell freely from the windows, reflecting off the polished floor. The estate was as he first knew it. Movement caught his eye, and soon its object captivated the young man. A tired, elderly knight stood before him. Without hesitation, Delita came to his side. The face bore features which were too powerful for the King to ignore, the similarity to his childhood friend combined with the regal armor of the Heavenly Knight too powerful. The chamber fell away, seeming to fade as it had in memory many years ago to the peasant-turned-king.
“I, I would…that is….” His voice was seemed insubstantial even to himself, as if he were the dream and the ghostly visitor the dreamer. Stammering to a stop, he attempted to recoil the intense confusion and emotions. The aged face of Balbanes turned, facing something in the distance. Words came, though the specter’s lips hadn’t moved.
“No matter the meaning of blood, I am as concerned as any father should be!”
The scolding tone was too familiar, and in an instant, Delita found himself on the riverbanks. The cold grey skies overhead, the sweet smell of wet earth and ripe fruits. It was the day he’d argued with the tutor, refusing his lessons despite Ramza’s attempts at intervention. The contempt he’d felt for the well-intended education and the guilt he’d felt after struck as a sudden pain, making him feel worthless. As he had often back in the early days, he’d talked back to the tutor, feeling the rigorous studies were unfair to be given to a boy who held no station. A cutting remark about not being a true Buelve but having to be worked as one had ended that days lesson abruptly.
The lecturing specter continued, the stern words coming as an echo to those within Delita’s own memory.
“Yes, I was told everything that had been said, Delita. But I don’t think you really meant those things at all; I believe in you more then that.”
He didn’t feel the hand on his shoulder, but he knew it was there. He felt the words grow softer, as if somehow the specter also knew this was redundant, a thing already done.
“Do you really resent being raised in our house, as a Buelve? To learn the written word, to understand the history of those lands, to be trained in ways of the gentleman, scholar, and warrior? Those are things of benefit within themselves, no matter what blood runs through your veins. To accomplish great things, there is no path but to dedicate to your cause, and see it through without faltering. If you are not sure of yourself, you will be led astray. And I won’t always be here to guide you, Delita. That is why I must make certain you understand how to find the path yourself.”
“I found the path that led this far, Lord Balbanes.”
For the first time, the vacant eyes seemed to focus. With a grave nod, Balbanes looked into Delita’s face.
“Well met, my son, if so I may still call my King. But the path you walked was a dark, twisting thing.” He waited for Delita to respond, looking through the misty air at the bland sun hung high, behind a wall of churning clouds. Fog came off of the river, the dull waters soon hidden. Delita found himself alone with Balbanes, only a small circle of the riverbank still visible as all else melted into mist. Unable to think of a response, Delita simply breathed. At the back of his mind, he knew the chamber full of knights was beckoning, back in the strange castle of memories and ruin. He elected to remain a while longer with Balbanes.
“I never said goodbye to you, the man who would make me his son in every manor allowed by law. At the last, I was made to wait outside. I think I hated my blood greater at no other point.”
“Delita, our world is a place where ideas have long battled for the hearts and minds of our people. But I tell you this now as I did in life: Do not suffer injustice, or allow the weak to be hurt. To be true to this heritage, to uphold the name of Buelve and the Hokuten Knights was nothing else. This is the heritage to all who would be a true warrior; A heritage I intended for you, for all of you…” His face clouded over.
“Ramza did walk your path. Even in anger and fear, when those he cared about were in danger, he remained just and loyal. Even after he was named a heretic, he – he…”
“I know all this, Delita. A father watches over all his children, as best he can. Ramza, and dear Alma. I wish I could have protected them, as I wish for Teta and you. But there is another I must protect…” He reached down into the mists, and drew up a reed. It split at his touch, and he held it aloft to Delita.
“The reed flute, a simple game. Do you remember when Alma was looking for you? She couldn’t find you in the fog that day, and feared you may have ridden into the river…” Before he could respond, Delita heard the dull sound of the flute, seemingly from far off. A dark haired girl with smooth skin came from the parting mists, taking the flute from Balbanes hand when she neared. Teta’s soft eyes looked into her brothers, blushing as she put the reed to her lips. The sound continued from far off, but Teta was unable to join. She gave up with a sigh, smiling again at her brother.
Delita choked back a cry, but didn’t let himself lose control. Not in front of Teta. She spoke softly, and it somehow soothed away all feelings from his mind. He couldn’t make out most of her words, somehow spoken to his heart rather than his mind, but he felt warmth and confidence filling his being.
“Still trying, Teta? Come, let us find another reed. The trick is to find one ripe in the leaf’s blade, but not too dry.” Delita blinked, and found he was looking at a younger Balbanes, leading a small girl by the hand by the river bank. Walking with them a short ways, Delita soon found the other player of the reed; A small boy with the same dark brown hair and deep eyes, but with a worried look about him.
“Delita, you shouldn’t hide from your sister! She’s afraid to cry out for you in the fog, and yet if she continued to search for you she may have fallen into the river.”
The girl was laughing, as if trying to worsen the situation. Delita found himself standing as the young boy, about to be scolded again. He spoke, hearing his voice light and youthful.
“Sister, if you can play the reed, then we will always find one another. Whenever I hear Ramza play the reed, I play in return.”
“I’m still learning.”
“Then you should stay with Alma. She can show you to play the reed.”
“She’s not here.”
Delita was startled by this. His smiling sister didn’t say anything else, but looked back over her shoulder. Balbanes was old again, and Delita found himself no longer outside at all, but was inside the audience chamber once again. The sunlight fell through the gleaming windows, dancing about the floor, but slowly faded. Soon he became aware that the glinting he saw was from the lightning outside, through the shattered remains of the windows. The storm outside was muted, as were the knights standing around him. They were motionless, as if frozen in time. Teta, now aged and dressed as he had in her final days, still smiled at him.
“Alma isn’t here, Delita. She is with Ramza. She is strong and brave, and will walk the righteous path with him against all that hates the light. But may I ask a favor you, brother?”
“Name it, and I swear to see done. As King of Ivalice, and as your brother, I swear sweet Teta.”
“I’m afraid to send you into danger, but I will follow Alma’s example. Please listen, our time is nearly spent, and it is so hard to concentrate in this place.”
“I hear your every word, Teta.” He felt the warm feelings fade a moment, and he found his hand holding tightly to the reed flute he’d brought with him into the audience chamber. His knights became animated, as if he’d never left the passage of time in the first place. Expressions of confusion abounded as they took into account the ruins about them.
“My lord, now the ruins have returned. Also, the storm has increased in its fury; I believe we have lost time unnaturally by entering this room again.” Rad looked where his King was staring, and then back into the dark eyes. Delita gestured for him to wait a moment more, and sensing a presence in front of them that was more than mere shadows, he complied. The knights quieted themselves, and listened to their King’s words. He spoke as he turned away from vacant wall, though glancing back there from time to time as if conferring with someone there non-verbally.
“My men, I now know the nature of this place. There is danger, as a relic of great power lays within those halls and draws the darkness near. Let any man not wishing a part of this leave now, for what we face is formidable indeed. You will not be hindered in leaving, the way back having been cleared for us. But soon this place will be overpowered by something vile, and unless it is defeated, that darkness will seek to consume all of Ivalice! But we are not alone. This is the hall of the Hokuten, a hall I know from long ago as being dedicated to the Knights who would fight for a just cause even unto death, and now it seems, even beyond. Listen carefully; Where the rain falls is our world, while where the memories dwell is the darkness. If you find yourself alone and in despair, you must remember that you are not alone. The Hokuten are with us, and will aid us as best they can. So long as you remember and hold true to your vows as a Knight, we will hold sway in both this realm and the shadows."
He took in a shaking breath, feeling the eyes on him burn. He didn’t see any doubts or scoffs. Instead, one by one they kneeled. Turning around, Delita found himself faced with Balbanes, and no less than twenty knights dressed in the armor of the Hokuten. Balbanes was seen and heard by all, as he began to lay out the strategy in earnest. Something fantastic happened to those who heard his voice; Their own fears evaporated. The ghostly general’s commands were to the soul as well as the mind, and within moments the focus and confidence of Delita’s men matched those of the phantom Knights. The young king turned to notice Teta had vanished, though Balbanes continued unperturbed. Something told him not to worry, as if a piece of himself was returned.
“And so our plan is a simple one. In the shadows, we of the Hokuten will route the fiends, forming a path for the living. Call to us should you need aid. On this plane, you will need to defeat the demons which bring the cursed darkness, though so long as they are in this plane they are mortal and easily slain by a sword or spell."
“A pity we’ve no mages to aid in this scrape.” Rad cursed, dispatching patrols about the castle. The ghostly Hokuten simply became insubstantial and faded, but the other knights could feel their presence like a reassuring whisper from a close friend.
“Ah, I’ve already sent for the best there is, living or dead. But should the dark ones claim the Scriptures, all is for naught. Only living hands may touch them, for they are a physical object of this world not meant for any other.” Balbanes turned to Delita, who had stood aside as the Lord of Igros Castle had set about to defend his honor.
“Your choice of Rad as Cid’s successor was a wise one, your highness."
“Please don’t pay me respects like that. You said yourself my path was a dark one to the crown."
“Kings make decisions, good and bad. I’m judging your decision a wise one, as in military matters, my judgment proves useful.” Delita couldn’t argue with that statement, and so swallowed instead.
“We seem to have a moment of privacy, so let me exlpain. Kings have secrets, some which they keep from others, and some which they keep from themselves.” The specter of the old knight ceased to move his lips, but continued to speak within Delita’s mind in a delicate tone.
“Delita, there are some things which I do not have the authority to judge, though many may feel I should. As a father, I wanted for many things, but as a man, I understand that the shapes of happiness are different for every person."
“My father, what is it you want me to say?"
“Delita, I want you to consider for a moment Ramza. Consider if he had felt the same as you. Both then, and now."
There was a momentary flash within Delita’s mind, where he felt Balbanes conjure up vivid recollection of various events which all had an unmistakable theme. One floated clearly, and hesitated before his minds eye.
He remembered the strength he’d felt when Ramza had held him back, muscles tensed, emotions boiling as he’d lunged at the smirking blond he’d already knocked once, bruising his knuckle. He’d felt his friend’s chest through the his tunic, breathing hard, could almost feel his friend willing him to stop his anger with that firm, gentle squeezing of bodies. He knew now it was meant for his own good, but he’d shaken Ramza off. But in that moment, he had seen it as Ramza defending a fellow noble, Algus.
And it had hurt, wanting to save Teta, wanting defend her, while that smiling bastard dismissed the matter. It had hurt greatly to feel powerless, to be called powerless by such an ignorant bastard, and to have Ramza actually hold him back. But even worse was how in that one moment he had felt his body respond to Ramza’s. As if validating Algus’s claim that he was a peasant, a tool of Ramza’s, a piece of property like unto an animal, and likewise as expendable as Teta. He’d felt that moment shaming him long into the nights that followed. He’d never had the courage to approach Ramza, to speak with him about those moments where he was more aware of his physical presence than any other force of nature. Somehow, he had decided it was Ramza’s place to decide the terms of their friendship, and he would have rather lived as a brother than risk being outcast from the family which had offered him and his sister so much. Even if the only people who truly saw them as family as well were Alma and Ramza.
Opening his eyes, he looked back at he ghost, which he felt more than saw. He now knew that Balbanes had also cared for himself, and his sister too. He could see that plainly with how he led her by the hand by the riverbank, and somehow the feelings that conveyed within him wouldn’t be shaken off. The King felt an obligation to be honest with the knight, while suspecting Balbanes already knew all or would have started this line of inquiry, and finding the entire situation ill-timed (but when does one plan on meeting with the dead to discuss the dead and not-so-dead issues?)
“Delita, there is no response necessary. It is my request to you that you consider, that is all. Long ago, you and Ramza walked together, before going onto separate paths. Yet those paths crossed from time to time, and will cross again soon. Be ready, Delita, with an answer that you may be true to. He will need you, either way.”
At the last Delita had mixed feelings, but he knew to hold a grudge against someone for being a noble was foolish when he himself wore the Crown.
“You amaze me, Heavenly Knight Balbanes. But, onto the pressing matters at hand, now that we have set up a defense throughout the castle, how will we locate Zalbag’s Tomb? I assume if there was a mundane solution, my men would have found it hours ago.”
“Ah, this would be the true favor I, and Teta, would ask of you. It is something you cannot do as King, but rather as Delita. We have great need of you.”
While a pair of knights and their phantom counterparts remained behind, Delita followed the specter of Balbanes onward. Rad had reluctantly agreed to allow Delita to continue alone, having decided that as those events were beyond his understanding, it was best to defer to the Heavenly Knight’s judgment. Besides, it would allow the knights to focus on fighting without having to worry about the King’s welfare.
“You see, my son Zalbag has been taken by the darkness, cursed to live in a dead body. He’s within the dark, brooding memories of this place, and he cannot hear my voice. He’s trapped, entombed within his own flesh, and wanders about on your plain. He is lost, and if led astray, may take the Scriptures with him. You must find him, you must show him the path."
“The reed. That is why…” Delita felt Balbanes attention shift behind him. Another presence was nearing.
“Delita, it is about to begin. We will seek to occupy the darkness, and hopefully you will find Zalbag first.” He was gone, though Delita could feel the struggle within the silence. The sounds of battle quickly came as well, though instead of cries of pain or horror, he heard the sounds of human battle cries, and the slow, subtle murmur of the Hokuten’s battle chants. He shared in their exaltation, and sprinted through the shattered corridor.
The storm fell about him, the wind and rain easily finding its way through the wreckage. He proceeded down a spiral stairway of stone, bringing himself up sharply as he slipped a bit. The shadows deepened as he proceeded, entering the foundation of Igros Castle. It seemed the sewers had been thrusted upward by something of tremendous force. Pools of stench greeting the King as he carefully made his way about. Picking a torch out of it’s holder nearby, he ignited the wet wood with a word of magic. The darkness fled before the flame, save a small shadow which writhed momentarily. It formed quickly into a hulking figure, a broken face with strange, dark fur and skin. Its horns were a reddish hew, and it revealed wings which seemed far too small to carry the beast’s weight.
The demon was startled, and more than a bit afraid. Long gnashes covered one side, dark oily substances leaking out in testimony. The figure shivered a bit, hunching over. It resembled a stone gargoyle somewhat. Bleeding for a moment more, the creature cave a silent shriek of agony as another cut appeared across it’s chest. There was a flash of lightening high above, and the light came through the cracks, even reaching into the foundation where Delita stood. For that instant, Delita could see the glint of a Hokuten’s mantle, ornamented with the White Lion crest. The demon stood aside, allowing Delita to proceed. When he looked over his sholder, all that remained of the demon was a small stone statue of a gargoyle. But an instant later, another had taken its place. He hurried on, hoping the specter knights were powerful enough to maintain the pace.
He then found himself entering part of the main floor, having dropped below during some unimaginable disaster. A balcony bridged partway above, and stairs trailed up to it. The upper door no longer led to anywhere, and as he’d entered from the lower door, it seemed there was no way to continue further.
But it became fast apparent that he’d already arrived, perhaps too late.
The fire died, embers scuttling about when touched by the evening breeze. The moon shined brightly above, though the stars were difficult to see in such a hazy sky. Malak cursed, having fell half asleep while listening to the sounds of the surrounding woods. Hurrying to add more wood to the waning flames, he discovered the stock was gone already. While the sleeping form of Olan was still nearby, the hulking bird-man was gone.
“Algus? What has happened?”
“We ran out of wood, so I’ve brought more.” The giant man-beast appeared out of the shadows beyond the flickering light, the moon’s touch decorating the feathery body in strange patterns as it fell through the leaves. As he’d promised, his arms were full of timber, apparently clawed into usable segments. He stacked them quickly next to the fire, his efficient movements drawing Malak’s gaze down the smoothed bodyline. He noted the birdman’s posture, slightly favoring his forward clawed foot. The other was rough, dulled orange, fully supporting the body’s weight as it twisted in exertion. But the other clawed foot, and partway up it’s scaled leg, was shiny. Finishing his work, and noting his companion’s scrutiny, Algus resumed sitting opposite the Hell Knight with a sigh.
“We’ve bathed him, and clothed him in clean dress. Now we keep him warm, and feed him when he’s ready for some more. His stomach could barely stand for that broth, though he looked better afterwards. I’m not sure what more can be done at present.” Algus gestured at the slumbering mass, which breathed silently, except for a slight, occasional shudder, as if breathing in too deeply caused pain. “But he woke while you were off playing with the forest animals. He didn’t feel like talking, so I told him to rest. Why did you leave like that, Malak? He was strong enough to be fully conscious, and even asked a few questions about what had happened.”
Malak shrugged, drawing his arms back behind his head. He looked ill, but more tired than anything. The brown eyes focused carefully on something ahead, beyond, into the moonlit sky.
“He didn’t recognize me, Algus. I was just another pair of hands helping wash the grime and disgrace off his flesh. He was in shock, still coming out of whatever place he put himself while they were torturing his body.” He still remembered the way the fevered flesh had jumped in his hands as he lowered the trembling man’s body into the water. While unable to fight back, Olan simply tolerated the shock of the cold flow, clenching his hands in frustration. Quickly the repetitive strokes, gentle, soft and warm helped ease the anguish from his limps. Circulation was restored, and so was the long over-due pain. Having carefully dried the young man, he bade Algus keep close so his natural healing force would continue to aid Olan’s recovery, and then had left to search the woods for possible food. When he had returned, Algus had been asleep, drained from his repetitive uses of the strange healing power that was invested in the bird-kind. And then soon even the Hell Knight had fallen asleep, meaning for a brief time only the forest was guarding the three.
“He was quite taken back by my appearance, though as I continued to heal bathe him in my power, he relaxed. Still, should he wake again, it would be best if you were here – even if he doesn’t recognize you.”
“He must not recognize me. He’s not liable to anyway, given the circumstances, but for now…Lets not mention my ‘powers’. He would know me by no other means except by my forbidden skills…” The brown eyes lowered into the fire, reflecting inwardly, in silence. Algus shifted slightly, looking up into the sky.
“I believe there is a story here, Malak. What would someone of your profession have to do with the master tactician of the Nanten Knights – the son of Thunder God Cid?”
“Are you offering to elaborate on your origin, strange chimera, he whom shares such a unique connection to his royal highness? Despite having never pressed the point, I did know a certain nature of it just from what I could see of your ‘chamber’.”
Algus expression turned black for a moment, then faded into the detachment that was most familiar to the Hell Knight so far. Malak waited for a response, and eventually one came.
“You could be executed for uttering such, but I can’t fault you for something as disgusting as-as the truth itself. Why speak of it now?”
“Algus, my power is over the truths denied, the faithlessness within oneself; So of course those moments between you two were more than apparent to me. And while you may find yourself disgusted by them, to me they are merely puzzling. So, try to understand, despite that you’ve not a skill like mine; My actions towards Olan might be likewise disgraceful. Why don’t we drop the topic of secrets?”
“Its no use, I suppose. I would trust you more if I could, Malak. But its hard to know where a man’s loyalties lay when he acts at such cross-purposes.”
“Not everyone has a master, Algus. Why not accept that I’m my own agent? Your musings may end right here and now, with that. Are you incapable of imagining someone taking actions of their own free will, perhaps for issues best kept private? And this from someone so mute about his own origin, with so little faith in himself it burns my mind’s eye.”
Algus considered this for a moment, closing his eyes. Speaking softly, the low voice coming out as whisper, he started his next sentence twice before following through.
“Malak, my world is a thing which isn’t worth understanding. I live it because I need something to make sense in my life, and nothing else works. But I don’t see why you could care about someone – to the point of being psychotic – to then back off, hiding from him, hoping to escape at the next chance you have into the night. You would already be gone if you thought I would be able to protect Olan alone.” He reached over to the sleeping form, carefully pulling the blankets aside to reveal the tactician’s face. The strained expression eased as the feathered hand came to rest above the forehead, obliterating the fever with a soft yellow light.
“I know I’ve not your skills, but I can tell from the way you looked at him that you owned him, Malak. Your face, your eyes – they are like Delita’s on me, but on him. You tried not to touch him any more than you had to, as if to fight it off. Is it because I am here? Or is there some other reason for why you play such a strange hand…”
“We can make a trade, if you like. But you will go first then, Algus.”
“But then what if after you end up telling nothing at all?”
“You already said your world wasn’t worth understanding, Algus. Hardly worth protecting then, and besides-I’m a truthful sort. I really do despise dishonesty in earnest; I’ve paid for the lies I’ve told to myself enough to know exactly the cost involved.”
“Are you really that interested in something as mundane as how a beast-man came to be? Even after having lived through the horrors of the Zodiac Stones with Ramza?”
“I never did get to know much about Ramza’s past, and I suspect you have a bit to share. There is something between you three…Between Delita, Ramza, and you. Something that I found in different shades in each of your presences…”
“An exchange of stories, then. A way of building trust between us. Well, as you already know so much, you may as well know the rest of it.”
“Don’t waste any time then, my friend. I assure you, your tale is probably far more interesting than mine. At least you are involved with a King, whereas mine circles around espionage and too much wine.”
The two men continued to speak, both men needing rest but too stubborn to admit it. They spoke in quite tones, occasionally pausing to listen to Olan’s shallow breathing. It was a time to tell the stories, lest they remain untold forever.
to be continued...
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