That Horrible Moment Chapter 5

The Way It Should Be

By Donraj

        Xavier Eden was a man with a smile that never seemed to leave his face.
        He was not a strongly built man, barely reaching five and a half feet. His brown hair was closely cropped in the standard style of a novice priest, and his simple brown robes, while well cut, where the clothing of a man who truly cared nothing at all for what he possessed.
        He seemed quite out of place among the merchant's caravan. While he dressed simply, it was clear from his clean appearance and healthy body that he was not a peasant, or a trader. His hands, while bearing more then a few calluses, were well manicured and perfectly clean. His skin had the slightly pale color of a man who spent most of his day inside, reading and devoting countless hours to prayer.
        Despite his soft appearance, the rowdy wagoneers had gone fairly easily on him. They had made more then a few coarse jokes at his expense, but Xavier, radiating a sense of peace that made even the roughest hired hand ashamed to taunt him, had borne it with complete equanimity.
        He did not hold any grudge against them. He was, he decided, a natural target. Feeling slightly ashamed of his presumption in assuming that these hard-working men of the road would accept him so easily, he resolved to redouble his efforts to make himself useful.
        As the wagons ground to a halt and the camp was pitched Xavier industriously hurled himself into being useful, hauling supplies, helping to feed and tie up the chocobos, and dozens of other necessary chores. When the work was finally done, he made his way to the chow line.
        Seeing the tired look on the face of the cook, he walked up to him. The chef, a fat, balding, rather bad-smelling man, raised his heavy wooden ladle and shook it threateningly at him. "Ye'll eat when everybody else does. Now get in line!"
        Xavier bowed slightly in apology. "I am sorry to interrupt you sir. You must be tired from the road. Would you allow me to handle serving the food? That way, you can get some rest."
        The chef absently scratched his greasy ear. "What's in it for you?" he asked suspiciously. "You don't get to eat any sooner!"
        Xavier bowed again. "Of course not. But you have been so busy working this whole time, and I have been slacking off. I really must do something to help."
        The chef hesitated, then, overcome by the humble young man's simple kindness, surrendered. "Alright. Slop's over there, just dump some out for each of them." With that, he ambled off. Still smiling, Xavier cheerfully gathered up the pots and carried them from the chef's makeshift kitchen to where the hungry merchants and guards waited, humming a hymn under his breath as he went. Happily, he began serving the food, making a point to thank or compliment each of the people who walked by for their work.
        As the line dwindled, he found himself face to face with a beautiful blonde haired woman. She was dressed in common travelling clothes, and wore a sword belted at her side, but she looked like nothing less then a true noble lady. She was, he remembered, one of the guards hired on for the trip.
        "Your name was. Rosa, was it not?"
        She nodded, a smile crossing her normally depressed face at the young man's friendly tone. "What happened to the usual chef?"
        "He was tired, so I took over. So tell me, where are your comrades?"
        "Oh," she replied, responding to Xavier's disarming friendliness, "Gilliam and Ellis are on sentry duty. As for Alberto, he locked himself in a wagon and refuses to come out. I don't think I want to know why."
        "I should probably bring him some food later." As he spoke, his ladle clanged against the insides of the empty stew pot. A chagrined smile crossing his face, he said "I seem to be out," an apologetic tone in his voice. "I believe there is some more in the wagons. If you don't mind, would you follow me?"
        They made their way to the make-shift kitchen in silence. Once there, Xavier quickly prepared a bowl for Rosa, then fixed one for himself as well. As Rosa took a sip of the still warm broth, Xavier took a seat, waiting for her response. After a moment, she looked back up and smiled. "It's good, thank you."
        "It was entirely the chef's work," Xavier demurred, never one to take the credit for himself. "So tell me, where are you from? Forgive my presumption, but you do not look like an ordinary mercenary."
        "Flatterer," she shot back, mentally scrambling to devise a response. "I'm just a mercenary, nothing more."
        But it is clear from your appearance that you are related to the nobility," the perceptive young man pressed.
        "I, uh, am from one of the minor families," she improvised nervously, her guts beginning to clench at the unexpected scrutiny. "My house was destroyed during the War, and I could either become a soldier or join a convent." That last part, at least, was true.
        "But in that case, why not join the Hokuten? Why become a simple fighter for hire?"
        "There were. complications," she said evasively. Hoping to change the subject, she quickly asked a question of her own. "So where are you bound? This does not exactly seem like a priest's normal entourage."
        "Your pardon milady," Xavier replied, gracefully allowing the topic to slide. "I am Xavier Eden, I am fear I am far from a priest. I am travelling to Gariland. From there, I will travel to Murond to undergo examination. If God is willing, I shall then be ordained a priest."
        "So where are you from?"
        "Lesalia. My father is a merchant of some success, although sadly I will not be carrying on the family business."
        "I see," she replied. "Last in line to inherit, eh?"
        "No, I simply waived my claim to my inheritance. The business will probably be passed to my younger sister."
        "You gave up your inheritance to become a priest?" she said incredulously.
        Xavier shrugged. "Wealth is not important to me. This way, I can perform God's work, and help to improve everyone's lot."
        Rosa, by now a jaded cynic, snorted. "Fat chance of that. You should have stayed home, at least that way you could have gotten something out of life."
        "My father said much the same thing," Xavier replied ruefully. "But with God, anything is possible!" he finished cheerfully.
        "If there's a God in Ivalice, it's the Devil himself," Rosa retorted bitterly, memories of Fort Zeakden and the Death Corps boiling to the forefront of her mind. "This world is a pile of mud, and if you try to pull people out of it you'll just get dirtier!"
        Xavier was shocked by the blasphemous statement, but kept his calm. "It is sad that you feel that way, but I pray."
        "Pray what?" Rosa spat angrily. "That God will 'open my heart?' Where is your God when there are real problems to be solved?! You're nothing but a spoiled noble brat who doesn't even realize just how well off he is!"
        "Have you ever seen them?" she demanded, rising to her feet as her anger took hold. "Have you ever seen the beggars on the side of the road, the peasant families that lost everything in some pointless war over territory? Have you ever looked at the corpse of a man you killed and known that all he wanted was enough food to stay alive?! Tell me, where is your God for the people who need him?"
        Xavier, caught completely off-guard by the infuriated woman's tirade, stammered to come up with a response. Disgusted, Rosa turned to walk away.
        "You are nothing but a na´ve fool who has never seen the world the way it is."
        Xavier's reply stopped her in her tracks.
        "I have."
        As she turned back to regard him, he continued. "I have seen the beggars, and the peasants. I've seen a battlefield the morning after the Knights were through there, I have seen the bodies of those who had been slain, and heard the sobs of the ones who wished they had been!" His voice rising as the passion within his heart poured into his words, he went on. ""I have seen them, I have seen them all. I have seen an infant, lying in a ditch, left there by his mother without even a blanket to cover him!" Finally, his voice dropped almost to a whisper. "And I have never blamed her, because I knew that the kindest thing she could have done for him was hope he would have the good fortune to die!"
        Xavier drew in a deep breath. Seeming to regain his calm, he finished in an almost plaintive tone. "I have seen the world the way it is, Lady Rosa. And I know it is not the way it should be."
        With that, he bowed slightly, then turned to prepare a platter of food. Forcing a smile back onto his face, he spoke again. "If you will excuse me, I believe that your friend missed dinner." With that, he walked off towards the other wagons, leaving a stunned Rosa in his wake.

        As Gilliam returned to the wagons to sleep, his shift on the watch ended, a noise in the forest caught his attention. Instantly alert to the possible threat, his body instinctively fell into a relaxed, battle-ready poise. Slipping through the light forest that marked the outskirts of Sweegy with barely a broken twig to reveal his passage, he silently made his way towards the source of the sound.
        As he reached a small clearing, his fears vanished as he recognized Hanlon, the aged leader of the caravan's guards, as the source of the noise. Crouching behind a bush into a spying position, he watched in amazement as the squat, bald old man worked his way through a difficult practice routine.
        Hanlon, bearing no weapon save his own body, moved through the forms with a speed and precision that would have been astounding in a man half his age. Punching, kicking and dodging against enemies that existed only in his own mind, he moved through the complex moves with ease, staying in perfect balance the entire time. Gilliam had to bite his tongue to keep from gasping in awe at the man's skill. Finally, he completed that segment of his training regimen and began a new one.
        Walking to one of the trees that surrounded the clearing, Hanlon picked up a small wooden staff and three small stones. He then moved to the center of the clearing and stood there stock-still. The staff rested in his right hand, while the three stones were grasped in his left. Slowly, he closed his eyes and inhaled a deep breath, seeking an absolute center. As he opened his eyes, he exploded into motion, tossing the three egg shaped stones into the air in a quick, one-two-three sequence. As the last one left his grasp, the staff flew into a flurry of motion. Then, to Gilliam's utter disbelief, Hanlon proceeded to bat each falling stone back into the air with the staff, one after another in rapid succession, keeping each one aloft. Man, wood and stone seemed to fuse into a blur of continuous motion, the sound of rock against staff melding into one constant fusillade.
        He kept this up for a good five minutes, not one stone ever touching the ground. Finally, he came to a stop, shifting the staff into his right hand and deftly catching one of the stones in his right, allowing the remaining pair to drop to a rest. In a seemingly casual move, Hanlon tossed the rock in his hand into a graceful arc. Gilliam, still entranced by the incredible display, failed to notice where the stone would land.
        Until it smashed squarely into his forehead.
        Calmly, Hanlon made his way to the stunned Gilliam, hands clasped behind his back. With an air of calm amusement, he looked the spy over, immediately recognizing the snooper as one of the mercenaries hired to reinforce his guards. Clinically, he looked the man over. A rather large bump would be forming, but there should be no lasting harm. Hanlon estimated he would be regaining his senses right about.
        "Ungah," Gilliam mumbled.
        "You were spying on me. I could not be sure you were not a bandit," Hanlon explained helpfully.
        "Ghaag," Gilliam responded. Hanlon choose to interpret that as meaning that he understood and held no hard feelings. Calmly, he sat and crossed his legs. It would probably be awhile longer before the young mercenary would be ready to talk, and he had caught Hanlon's interest. It had taken him a few minutes to detect Gilliam's presence, most people he would have spotted from fifty yards away, even while immersed in his training routine. He showed. promise.

        Finally free of the distraction of annoying fellow travelers and the jarring movement of the caravan, Alberto eagerly laid the tome on the table. With excited hands, he opened it. Once again, a blast of paradoxical mental energy blasted at his mind from the warding glyphs inscribed on the first page. As before, it had no effect on Alberto. Like a child with a new toy, he flipped to a random page and began to read.

        Hear ye, oh mortal who would seek to summon the terrible lord of
        the unholy death wind. Know thee that within lies the path to a
        being of immeasurable power, which could leave your body a dried
        and withered husk, your soul.

        Bored, Alberto flipped ahead. A few pages of warnings and precautions later (including the information as to how to safely perform the summoning) he found something more interesting.
        At the top of the left page was an intricately detailed drawing of a skull-faced creature dressed in dark robes. A wild burst of black light radiated from its bony left hand, and its skeletal face was thrown back in berserk, blood-thirsty laughter.
        In short, it looked like Alberto's kind of person. He began to read once more.

        Before ye even dare to conceive of summoning this, the most
        feared spawn of hell and death itself, you must spend months in
        preparation. First, for protection, you must.

        Once again, Alberto yawned and skipped ahead. Finally, he got to the actual spell. He easily memorized the complicated words and runes necessary for it for the ritual. Mentally, he reviewed the list of ingredients. He would need a knife.

        Trying to regain his peace of mind after the confrontation with Rosa, Xavier quietly sung a favorite hymn of his as he made his way to the wagon that Alberto had sealed himself in, the tray of food supported carefully with both hands. As he approached the wagon, he noted an odd noise from within.

        Alberto, knife held in his left hand, stood within a quickly drawn pentagram. Four balls of flame, products of his magic, stood at each pole, floating three feet off the ground. The preparations done, he began to chant in a bizarre, clicking language. As he did, his free hand wove arcane patterns in the air, forming a precise rune before each ball of flame. As he did, each one flickered slightly, then turned pitch black. As they did, he thrust the knife into each one in turn. An eerie black light began to enfold the blade as he did. Finally, he halted his spin and began to raise the chant to a crescendo. As he did, he held out his right palm. Without a moment's hesitation, he slashed the blade across his palm.
        As the blood fell from his hand, it too took on the same strange, somehow shining dark hue of the flames. Alberto spun counter clockwise, an ululating sound coming from deep within his throat as he did. As the blood fell to the ground, the darkness began to creep into the pentagram, until Alberto was surrounded by the flaring black light. As the dark fire blazed into being around him the orbs began to spin about his wildly, and with that, Alberto felt something entering his mind!
        No words were exchanged, but an overwhelmingly powerful presence flooded the pathways of his psyche. A maniacal laughter began to ring through his ears, and a black form took shape before his eyes. The laughter increased, driving him to his knees in agony, and for perhaps the first time in his insane life, Alberto realized he had gone too far. This power, whatever it was, was beyond him, beyond even his comprehension!
        "I am Lich," whispered a terrible voice that trembled with dark power, igniting a volcano of pain behind his eyes. "Did you, a mortal, truly presume to summon me thus, without even the advantage of the laughably weak wardings your kind employees?"
        Gritting his teeth against the pain, Alberto gathered his will power, trying to drive back the overwhelming force, to reclaim control of his mind. Lich countered with a psychic blast akin to that of a mental hurricane, blasting aside his attempted defense.
        "You are doomed mortal! I will devour you from within, and then see what pleasures this world can offer me within your flesh! You are mine!"
        That got to Alberto. Reaching deep for the last of his strength, Alberto forced himself back to his feet. Unclenching his jaw (which had been on the verge of biting off his own tongue) he slowly spoke.
        "Who.are.you.calling.a.MORTAL?!"
        With that, Alberto hurled every ounce of willpower he had to left at the mental juggernaut that was Lich. As he did, he flung his hand out, grabbing one off the balls of flame that made the contact possible. Gritting his teeth against the scorching of his flesh, he sent a blast of freezing energy into it, blasting the delicate balance of the spell apart and severing the connection between himself and Lich. He felt Lich screech inside his skull, ripping away at his (relative) sanity. And finally, the demon was gone completely.

        After hearing the screaming inside, Xavier quickly put down the food tray and ran towards the source, hoping he was in time to save whoever or whatever had made that horrific noise. Just as he reached the door, it was flung open, barely missing Xavier's face. A wild eyed man, his right hand bleeding staggered out.
        "A.Are you alright?" Xavier asked. "Let me see that wound, what happ."
        Xavier was cut off as Alberto seized him by the collar of his robes in a grip with the feral strength of a madman. An insane light in his eye, he screamed a question into his face.
        "Can you not see it?!"
        "See what?" Xavier squeaked, his air beginning to be cut off.
        "The triangle! The glorious four-sided triangle!"
        "I, ah, no."
        With that, Alberto released him and ran into the forest, babbling wildly to himself. Xavier watched him until he vanished from sight, then looked into the wagon. The interior was wrecked, every bit of furniture blasted into scrap. He thought to go after the strange man, or at least to examine the wagon more closely, but in the end he decided that for once he truly did not want to know.

        After some time, Gilliam slowly began to return to consciousness. The first thing he was aware of was a deep, dull ache. To his confused mind, the ache seemed to be everywhere, radiating through him in slow, steady waves. As his mind began to function again bit by bit, he realized that the waves were coming from one particular point. Concentrating, he identified that spot as his head. That was it. His head hurt. Slowly, he began to rise, reaching upwards to feel the source of the injury.
        That turned out to be a mistake.
        As he moved the dull pulses instantly transformed themselves into a spike of agony driven through his skull. He fell back, moaning. Hanlon, immediately noticing his activity, rose to his feet and crouched down beside him.
        "Feeling a bit better, eh?" he said, much too cheerfully.
        "No," Gilliam managed to reply sullenly.
        Hanlon laughed and thumped Gilliam on the back. "Young man like yourself shouldn't even blink at a hit like that." Grabbing him under the armpit, Hanlon hauled Gilliam to his feet. "Come on, up and awake!"
        Gilliam stumbled forward before he managed to catch himself on a nearby tree. Glaring at the old man, he started to say something vulgar, then remember the display this man had put on earlier. Wisely, he remained quiet.
        Seemingly oblivious to Gilliam's anger, Hanlon continued. "See, knew you had it in you! You were Gilliam, right?"
        Gilliam nodded slowly (and immediately wished he hadn't!) tried to make sense of this odd warrior. The old man showed no sign of the skill and discipline he had shown earlier. Cautiously, he spoke.
        "I'm sorry if I startled you earlier. I heard a noise and I thought it might be an intruder."
        Hanlon waved the apology off casually. "No, no, just doing your job. Sorry to whack you like that, I didn't know you were one of ours. There are goblins around these parts you know."
        Gilliam forced a smile. "I doubt any of them would pose a real threat to you, sir."
        A serious look crossed Hanlon's face for a moment. "Never underestimate a goblin lad. Meanest things on earth, especially if you intrude on their lands. They say that it was goblins that taught us humans how to fight unarmed, back before we learned to forge metal."
        "You mean like the fighting style you were practicing earlier?" Gilliam asked, his curiosity drawing his attention away from the lump on his head. Gilliam thought back to his own battle with a group of goblins. It was different, but there was a similarity between the way the savage creatures had fought and the refined moves this martial artist had displayed.
        "Perceptive lad," Hanlon congratulated. "So they say, so they say. Course, most men nowadays would never admit it, but humans are better at stealing things from others then coming up with them themselves."
        "That was amazing!" Gilliam said excitedly. "Where did you learn to fight like that?"
        "It was a long time ago lad, a long time ago." For a moment, Hanlon grew pensive, and stared off into space at some long ago memory only he could see. He shook his head slightly, the moment passed. "But that's not important. So tell me, think you are up to heading to your pallet?"
        "Yes, but." Gilliam stopped himself, trying to come up with a good response. He wanted to ask the old man if he would teach him, but.
        "Why are you here?" he blurted out.
        "Bit late for metaphysical questions lad."
        "I mean, why with this caravan? You are obviously a great warrior, why work guarding merchants through a forest? With skills like yours, you could easily find better work!"
        Hanlon's front of good humor seemed to vanish under Gilliam's questioning. A serious look on his face, he paused for a moment, then responded.
        "I've been around awhile lad. I fought in the war when I was no older then you, watched my comrades die around me. I've killed people with my bare hands, when their only crime was being born on the wrong side. I've had enough of it. This caravan is as good a way as any to pass what time I have left. That's about all the work I need now."
        As he finished, a deep silence seemed to surround him. Gilliam started to reply, but Hanlon cut him off, the cheery tone back in his voice.
        "But I'm sure you don't care about all that. Young folks never care much for anything that happened before they were on the scene. What do you really want?"
        He paced forward, examining Gilliam's face. He circled around him, seeming to weigh Gilliam's motives on some inner scale. Finally, he took a step back and straightened.
        "That's it! You want me to teach you, don't you? Don't deny it kid, I recognize the look. Believe me, I had the same one when I was you age." He snorted. "Amazed I didn't get myself killed then and there as a nuisance. Well, let's see if you're worth the effort. Draw your sword!"
        Gilliam hesitated for a moment, then complied, unsheathing his broadsword and holding it in a two handed grasp. Hanlon nodded and motioned him on.
        "Now, come at me."
        Gilliam stood stock-still, frozen. Attacking an unarmed man, it went against his every instinct. Hanlon, annoyed at his inaction, barked an order out. "Attack!"
        That command, spoken in a tone that Gilliam's military training had left him conditioned to obey instantly, snapped him out of his paralysis. He charged, sword in front of him as if he meant to skewer the old man. Hanlon sighed inwardly at the disappointingly predictable attack. As he moved to send Gilliam sprawling to the ground, Gilliam managed to surprise him.
        As he neared Hanlon, Gilliam faked a stumble. As he did, he scooped a stone up off the ground and hurled it forward while clutching his sword in the other. As Hanlon instantly dodged the unexpected missile, Gilliam threw himself into a roll. He landed on his feet and sprang forward like a snake, reversing his sword to smash the hilt into his target.
        Hanlon's foot caught him directly in the solar plexus as he did. Clutching his gut, Gilliam collapsed to his knees, gasping for air.
        Hanlon watch impassively as the young mercenary fell (again) to the ground. That attack had been a good one, had come close to actually catching him off-guard. He stroked his chin, then nodded as he reached a decision. He would take this one on as a pupil. After all, it was high time he started training a successor. He looked to the heap Gilliam had fallen into.
        Well, he corrected, tomorrow he would start training his successor.

As every member of the caravan who was not assigned to the night watch collapsed into their bed rolls, a pair of crimson eyes marked the scene carefully from outskirts of the camp. Concealed in the shadow of the trees, the watcher counted the strength of the caravan, mentally forming a map its layout. As the spy finished its examination, he turned and melted back into the shadows like a hunting cat. The others would be waiting.

The next day passed quickly, the caravan rapidly passing through the familiar terrain. The leaders pushed the chocobos hard, desperate to be out of the reputedly bandit filled forest as soon as possible. They kept the pace up the entire day, driving the chocobos and their handlers to the brink of exhaustion. Finally, as dusk fell, they were forced to come to a halt. The handlers quickly removed the exhausted birds' harnesses and allowed them their much needed rest. Their clawed feet were examined especially closely; for fear that the brutal pace might leave some of them lame.
        The entire camp buzzed with nervous anxiety, with every man in the caravan completely alert. The guards fingered their weapons uneasily, fearing an attack from the thick surrounding forest at anytime. The sentries for the night quickly made their way out to their posts, not even taking the time to eat. Off to the edge of the encampment, Lanal spoke to one of them quietly, under the pretence of giving him a loaf of bread.
        "The other teams are in place?" he asked quietly.
        The guard, the leader of the contingent of brigands Lanal had brought with him, nodded.
        "Each guard post has at least one of our men with them. The rest are in position with the main caravan. When Drake attacks, they won't see a thing coming."
        "Good. I'll join my own."
        Abruptly, Lanal fell silent as he noticed his own group of sentries coming. As they came by, he spoke up again, just loudly to make sure they would hear him.
        "Good luck, and do be careful." With that, he turned towards Gilliam and Alberto. "Noble guardians, are you ready for our sojourn?"
        Gilliam nodded, still surprised by the offer to accompany them on their patrol. "Are you sure you want to come with us? You could stay here." Lanal waved away the offer. "I doubt I could sleep anyway. And the more eyes the better, eh? Besides, where would I be safer then besides two excellent warriors such as yourself?"
        Gilliam, his cheeks growing red at the effusive praise from the admiring Lanal, shrugged and hefted his pack. "Have it your way. Are you ready?"
        Lanal stretched and nodded.

As they made their way through the dark forest, Lanal fell mercifully silent. Gilliam, adapting instantly to the now familiar environment of sentry duty, looked about constantly for any sign of trouble. Lanal stood directly behind him, with Alberto bringing up the rear. As they marched, Lanal mentally debated how to deal with two of them.
        He needed to do so quickly to met with the others and report on the caravan's defenses. But he had to pick his moment carefully. If his strike was not perfect, these two would be not be caught off-guard, especially with that damned wizard trailing behind him. Lanal had quickly realized that these two were among the caravan's most dangerous defenders (which was why he selected this group for himself), not simple mercenaries. He had to be sure.

His mind still reeling, from his encounter with Lich, Alberto struggled to remain centered on the present moment. Trying to prevent his mind from wandering out of focus (he had not been able to concentrate since the attempted summoning) he locked his attention on Lanal's back. It was surprising that the man had volunteered to come with them. The man smiled almost constantly, seeming to exude a sense of eager friendliness that reminded Alberto of an excitable little puppy dog.
        Alberto hated puppy dogs.

Using his mystic abilities to draw the pitch black shadows of the forest night around him in a concealing shroud, Chell observed the trio carefully. Judging from way they moved, the oracle immediately realized Lanal's problem. With that man (whom Chell instantly identified as a wizard of some sort) behind him, watching him like a hawk, there was no way the assassin could make his move. A plan coalescing in the experienced tactician's mind, he pulled the shadows closer and fell deeper still into the core of his being, reaching out to the subtle magic that made him so very deadly on these nights. Within the seclusion of his mind, a humming noise began to sound.

Alberto glanced about warily, his alert senses catching some sort of disturbance. He scanned the area, trying to find the source of the sensation. Nothing appeared. Finally, he gave up, convincing himself that it was only a flashback to the night before. But what was that sound?

Lanal. The voice, a whisper as cold as a serpent and as strong as a garrote, whistled through his mind as Chell made contact with him. Forcing himself not to start at the truly unwelcome intrusion into his thoughts, Lanal mentally formed a reply. Chell, (who else would be contacting him thus?) are you ready? I need a distraction. I will deal with the wizard, the reply came. See to the other one. With that, the oracle's presence vanished from Lanal's mind. "As talkative as he is in person," Lanal thought dryly. Forcing himself to relax, he mentally planned his next move. One quick spring forward should be all that he needed.

As he broke the telepathic link he had forged with Lanal, Chell refocused his attention on the sorcerer. Sorting through his arsenal, he mentally selected his method of attack. Falling back into the magic once again, he began to shape another spell. As he completed it, he opened a new connection and sent the scrambling burst of mental energy hurtling into Alberto's mind.

Alberto stopped in his tracks as the waves of psychic energy washed over his mind. An involuntary gasp escaping his lips, he staggered back under the assault. A strange haze seemed to form in the corridors of his mind, confusing baffling him. His concentration began to fade.

As he heard Alberto's gasp, Lanal made his move. Whipping a dagger from its concealed sheath, he darted forward, stabbing upwards towards Gilliam's ribs. Luck, pure, blind luck, saved him. As he turned to see what had caused Alberto's gasp, a tree root caught his foot. He staggered slightly, but quickly regained his balance. As he did, he just barely dodged the angle of Lanal's attack, receiving the strike (which would have taken him in the lungs) as a deep gash along his side. Instinctively, he lashed out, grabbing the arm that held the dagger and dragging them both down. As they hit the dirt, they grappled desperately, Lanal trying to bring his dagger into play, Gilliam struggling wildly to stop him.

Quite a few things had been launching attacks on Alberto's mind lately. All things considered, he was growing sick of it. Shaping his will into a blazing spark of light in his mind, he fought back against Chell's confusion spell, burning the mental fog away like the morning dew. As he regained his equilibrium, he traced the psychic connection back to its source and pinpointed his attacker. Transferring the focus of his concentration from his mind to his staff, Alberto channeled his anger into the form of a raw, elemental reaction. Lightning lit the night, the searing arcs of energy blasting towards Chell's vulnerable form. Chell, his cover lost, hurled himself to the side, just barely taking refuge behind one of the thick trees. It snapped under the magical assault, and with a loud crack began to fall towards him. Chell throw himself into another roll, this time towards Alberto, hoping to reach him unnoticed in distraction. Two yards away, he regained his feet and lifted his bo to strike. Alberto looked towards him, a mixture of panic and anger on his face. He pointed his staff towards Chell, another lightning blast already crackling across it and begging for discharge. Alberto granted it that release, and the magical lightning bolt, as deadly as anything the sky had ever created, lanced out. Acting with the combined speed of decades of finely honed reflexes and pure, unadulterated terror, Chell raised a defensive spell about him, a blue-green aura flaring into being around him. He closed his eyes, hoping that it would stand against the attack. The lightning struck Chell like a battering ram striking a castle gate. The barrier spell let out an unearthly shriek as it was pushed to, and beyond, its limits. The impact sent Chell flying dozens of feet, finally coming to halt as he slammed against a tree. Hard. The protective shell had saved him. It had spared him the worst of the punishment, ablating just enough of the destructive energy to prevent Chell from being seared alive on the spot. He sniffed, inhaling the disturbingly savory aroma of his own roasted flesh. Only the years of strict, uncompromising discipline kept him from screaming in agony, or from simply lying down and dying. As he lay there, semiconscious, he heard footsteps crunching through the woods towards him as if from a distance. He forced his half-blinded eyes open to see Alberto standing over him, bringing that staff to bear once more. "Any last words?" he inquired. Chell, drawing new strength from the prospect of revenge, allowed himself to slump, seemingly defeated. As Alberto shrugged, Chell leapt up like the wounded predator that he was. His hands locked like manacles around Alberto's wrists. Snarling, he opened himself up to his magic once again, spitting out the words as he cast this, his most beloved spell. A strange feeling swept through Alberto as he did. He started to attempt a counter, but all thought was washed away as he felt the energy draining out of his body and into his enemy! As if the drain plug had been pulled from a water basin, the strength flowed out of him faster and faster. He fell to his knees, kept supported by Chell's grasp on his wrists. A demonic smile twisting his normally emotionless face, Chell trembled with ecstasy as the stolen energy poured into his body, healing his injuries and filling him with new strength. And as Chell stood taller in his unholy joy, Alberto shuddered like an opium addict who had been a week without a fix. The world seemed to grow cold to Alberto, and dark. So dark.

        Dukane stiffened slightly as he heard the bird call echo out from the forest. The warbling sound, the call of a swamp bird, instantly informed Lanal's lieutenant that his comrades were on their way. Quickly, he went to work, passing the word to the half dozen bandits under his command via prearranged hand signals. Pulling his helmet over his militarily short blond hair, he moved into position, checking his weapons one last time. The bandits, skilled assassins all, followed suit, fanning out throughout the camp to attack the other guards from the most unexpected angle possible.
        Dukane selected a spot near the center of the caravan. As he scanned the area, his alert eyes picked out the aged leader of the guards, far from the perimeter where the bulk of his men were stationed. Not willing to let this opportunity pass, he pulled the crossbow from off of his back and drew careful aim on Hanlon. As he centered the bolt on the small of the old fighting monk's back, he pulled the trigger.
        The shaft flew perfectly. Hanlon, his instincts suddenly screaming that he was in danger, flinched as the projectile slammed into the small of his back, straight for his heart.
        Too late.

        Xavier, busy cleaning the food pots for the next day, heard Hanlon's sharp gasp as he was struck down. Dropping them, he ran towards the source of the sound, inhaling sharply as he saw the old man fall to the ground. Not sparing a moment to look for the attacker, or to worry about his own safety, Xavier ran to him and fell to his knees beside the badly wounded man. Grimacing as he saw the deadly wound, he clasped his hands before himself in prayer as he recited the words to the healing spell, though the minor spell seemed a poor tool against this lethal injury. Pushing his doubts aside, he fell deeper into his prayer, pulling the healing energy to him, begging his God for the strength to save this man. Slowly, Xavier's hands began to glow.
        Dukane, still concealed, watched in amusement. He had seen many injuries in his day, and he knew when a man was beyond a healer's power. Returning the crossbow to its harness, he drew two matched short swords, and began to stalk towards the oblivious young man.

        Desperately, Xavier prayed on, reaching into the deeps of his soul for strength, imploring Holy Ajora to grant him the power to save this man. The wound, a shot that had nicked the spine and lodged itself in Hanlon's heart, absorbed every ounce of energy he hurled at it without seeming to improve in the slightest. Totally absorbed in the struggle for the dying warrior's life, he did not notice Dukane until the bandit stood over him and cleared his throat. The assassin grinned wickedly as he lifted his blades for the strike. Noticing Xavier's robes, he taunted the novice priest.
        "Where is your God now?"
        Seeing his doom in the man's face, and certain that he was about to die, Xavier began to tremble. Calling on his faith to strengthen him, he forced himself to be calm, to look the bandit square in the eyes. Not doubting in the slightest that he was about to die, Xavier bowed his head over Hanlon's still form once more. With an absolute conviction borne of the sincere faith that blazed within his heart, he closed his eyes and began to pray once more. Whatever happened to him, he would not abandon this man!

        Dukane tensed his legs, then dashed forward, swords thrusting like a serpent's fangs. An instant before they drove into Xavier's body, a steel sword intercepted them, forcing them high. Dukane looked down the length of the blocking sword to see tall women, dressed in traveler's clothing, standing there, an angry glare in her eyes. Breaking the clench, the blond swordswomen rushed forward. Forcing his short swords out to the side, she rammed into him, elbow extended. He fell back, snapping his twin blades ahead in a double thrust. Her sword darted out to parry the first blade, then snapped to the side to knock the other sword out wide. Dukane feinted another straight forward attack, then somersaulted backwards, returning to his feet several feet away. Brandishing his swords in a guard position, he began to circle, trying to take this new adversaries measure.
        Rosa eyed him carefully. Not daring to let him out of her sight even for a moment, she called to the still praying Xavier.
        "Get out of here, there's nothing you can do."
        Xavier continued his prayers without a pause, not seeming to hear a word she said.
        Rosa tried to call out to him again, then cursed and turned her full attention back to the assassin. Finally recognizing the man, she demanded an explanation.
        "What the hell are you doing?"
        Dukane smirked. "Just clearing the way for the rest. Be glad you are going to die here, its better then what they would do to you if you were taken alive." With that, he went back on the attack with breathtaking agility, crossing the space between them in an instant. Both swords working in perfect unison, he whirled and stabbed at Rosa, attacking from every angle. Rosa, realizing that this man was a true master swordsman, could barely keep up. Her single blade moving so quickly that it seemed a blur, she used every trick in her arsenal to maintain her defense. Finally, an attack slipped through, cutting low to slash across her knees. Seeing her chance, Rosa made a desperate bid.
        Faking a stumble, she fell to the ground, one hand falling away from her sword. As Dukane darted forward to finish her, she ripped off her cloak, hurling it at his blades. His right sword cut through the rough material, entangling it in the cloth. Returning to a two-handed grasp, Rosa stabbed straight up. Dukane caught it with his free blade, deflecting it away from his body and holding it across his chest.
        Just as Rosa had expected him to.
        Placing her left foot under her for balance, Rosa stood, her right leg kicking straight up into the Dukane's groin. The blow, which had begun at ground level, sent waves of agony coursing through his body.
        In an act of endurance that was a true testament to his years of self- discipline, Dukane did not topple. Forcing his wiry muscles to move, he stabbed forward with the entangled blade, directly into Rosa's face.
        Rosa let her left leg fall out from under her, dropping her onto all fours. As her elevated right leg fell, she swept out with it, knocking Dukane to the dirt. Springing back to her feet, she nearly stumbled as she realized that she had sprained her ankle in the maneuver. Forcing her self to stay on her feet, she pointed her sword downwards and leapt forward, stabbing down at the prone man.

        As he saw the point of Rosa's sword descending towards, Dukane realized that he trapped, that there was no way he could dodge. Closing his eyes, he clenched his right hand, focusing all of his thoughts on the crystalline ring there. As he did, a soft red aura began to glow around it. It spread, covering his entire body with its ruby light. Time began to slow to Dukane, with Rosa's jumping attack seeming to move like she was submerged in molasses. He pencil rolled, easily escaping an instant before Rosa's sword thrust into the dirt where his chest had been. As he rose to his feet, he patted the ring gratefully. The magical trinket had saved a much younger member of the Nanten soldier more times then he could count. Mentally, he chalked up one more to the tally. Grinning like a sand panther spotting a cripple chocobo, he charged.

        He was fast, impossibly fast. As the assassin charged her, Rosa, held her sword ready, prepared to defend against any move he made. Or so she thought. An instant before he would have impaled himself on her sword, Dukane circled to the left, slipping past her guard with terrifying speed. He could have easily ripped her open with his blades at that point, but he wanted to draw this out, to enjoy his revenge as much as possible. He kicked out, catching her in her sprained leg, sending her stumbling to the ground. As she tried to regain her feet, he kicked her in the face, sending her sprawling again. Rosa, her nose bleeding and her vision doubled, forced her head back up, expecting to see a sword thrusting in to finish her. Instead, Dukane was standing calmly, blades at his sides.
        "One more chance," he said mockingly. "Up!"
        Barely able to see straight, her left leg screaming for her not to place her weight on it, Rosa struggled painfully to rise. Despairing, she wondered how she would get out of this one.

        Ellis, her watch over, wandered beyond the edge of the camp. A restless mode falling over her traveler's spirit, she slipped through the shadow's, admiring the simple beauty of the moonlit night. Spotting a good tree, she found a set of handholds and scrambled up it, finding a perch that lifted her above the canopy. She looked up at the full moon, a sense of calm coming over her. Knowing that restful moments such as this rarely entered her life, she leaned back against the body of the tree, enjoying the scene with all of her senses.
        That was when she heard the noises.
        Something, a lot of somethings, was charging through the forest. Freezing, she looked down at the trail, waiting. Within a few moments, a host of chocobos appeared, hurtling towards the unprepared camp. Ellis had to bite her tongue to keep from gasping as she saw the number of them.
        There were too many of them, she realized instantly. There was no way the caravan's meager guard could fight them off. Not daring to wonder how they had gotten past the patrols unnoticed, her mind raced, trying to find a way to warn the others, to come up with some sort of defense.
        There was nothing she could do, she realized. The caravan was doomed, and so was everyone with it. The knowledge hit her like a lightning bolt. And for the first time since she was a child, a tear fell from her eyes. Denying the truth, she dropped down from the tree and ran towards the camp, towards the people who had come to matter so much to her. "Not again," she whispered grimly to herself. "Not again."


Chapter 6

Donraj's Fanfiction