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The steel airlock door creaked shut behind me.
Footsteps investigating the noise drew close for a moment, but soon faded.
I lowered myself into bed with a sigh.
My right hand unconsciously drifted to the back of my head.
There, beneath my pillow, it fell upon a picture frame.
Within it, a disheveled room full of scrap iron, oil stains, and a single, beautiful flower...
My beloved Edea...
I pine for the chance to see a smile unfurl across your face set in equal parts courageous fire and innocence.
I long to hear your voice, sweet like a spring breeze. Let it speak my name, and I shall die a happy man.
I could hear the nervous shuffling outside my door of someone afraid to disturb me. Not afraid enough, it seems.
I returned the photo to its hiding place and answered without bothering to conceal my irritation.
"I'm awake. What is it?"
I skimmed the manual I'd been given, then tossed it on the bed.
I returned to Edea's smile, perfectly preserved within the picture frame.
The Eschalot. My lips formed the word time and again as I watched the new ship in tow from my cabin porthole.
I hurried for the capital as the sun dipped below the Norende Plateau.
My steps are unnervingly light without my armor, and these clothes hang oddly on me. Most of all, I feel naked without a weapon.
I was greeted at the city's edge by the sound of a whistle marking the arrival of a merchant ship.
Between the merchants and wholesalers, the dock workers unloading crates, the tired crewmen, and the eager children excited by the exotic wares, the port was buzzing with people.
As I pushed my way upstream through the crowd and along the avenue toward the palace, I spotted a splendid building, its roof a rich navy.
This must be the inn the old fisherman described.
Inside, I found a man with a gentle mien sitting behind a well-polished counter.
I asked after any vacancies, but he replied with a chagrined, "Sorry, we're all full up tonight."
It feels quiet for a full inn, but I don't suppose I can blame him.
A walk-in customer, at this hour. Clearly not a local. No one to vouch for me.
Any respectable innkeep would offer some version of the same excuse.
When I inquired after a place to eat, he said down by the port there should be a cheap pub catering to sailors that's open until morning.
Lovely. Back down I go...
At the hill's bottom I ate my fill at a food cart aimed at drunken sailors. Now it's back up to the inn.
I refuse to spend the night kept awake by carousing seamen.
I let myself into the empty house next door to the inn. I'll just have to sleep lightly.
I was awakened by the sound of sword practice, shouts of exertion, and the pleasant smell of toast.
One of the king's guard, perhaps? Looks about my age, and reasonably skilled. I lay in my makeshift bed, lazily counting his swings.
"Hurry up, Owen. You'll be late."
Upon hearing the innkeep's words, the youth replied and made his way down from the misty hilltop and into the inn.
The scent of breakfast coming from next door has me drooling...
One bite of my rock-hard bread brought me back to reality. The bacon burnt coal black and the murky, bitter coffee made me wish it hadn't. I suppose I can expect no more from a shabby stand in the port.
After choking down my fill, I climbed the hill toward the palace.
Supplied by a series of lush waterways, Caldisla was once a formidable city-fortress. These days, its hooked central avenue is lined with a magic shop, general store, armory and other businesses.
A large gate stands as a vestige of that era, though now it serves mostly as a site for the town bulletin board.
"This year's boar hunt is set to begin once the final slot is filled! *Weapons provided by the hunting committee."
A boar hunt? With the duchy attacking?
I was speechless. As I made to leave, I felt someone grasp my shoulder.
"This fellow says he'll join the hunt! We ride today!"
I turned, shock and irritation laid bare, only to find Owen, the young man I had seen practicing in the fog that morning.
My initial protests were drowned in a rising cheer, and as the smith handed me a broadsword and buckler, I dumbly accepted. Potions from the town chemist followed.
Between their expectant smiles and Owen's grin, I found myself unable to say no.
On the road, I was told a litany of facts I cared nothing about.
The search for food to fatten up before hibernating apparently drives the giant boars to local farms, where they raid crops and injure workers. As a result, the city gathers volunteers each year to hunt them.
As captain of the guard (I discover), responsibility for overseeing the hunt falls upon Owen.
The armorer was slated to participate, but a leg injury has him on crutches. Owen says he was searching for a replacement when he found a promising candidate during his morning practice. Lucky him.
We walked a full, tiring day stalking our prey. First the trader gave out, then chatter dried up between the two young castle guards.
Sunset found us upriver from the city, at the entrance to the Norende Canyon. Just as we decided to make camp, a rustling came from the thickets behind us!
The boar that leapt out was indeed a giant—a vicious, one-tusked monster that had survived the last year's hunt. In a flash, it gored one of the guards, then the other, leaving only Owen, me, and the trader. The boar stamped the ground, preparing to charge the old man now paralyzed with fear.
I expect we'd all given up hope for the kindly old merchant, when the beast suddenly changed course.
With only seconds to react, Owen landed a mighty blow, felling the monster in a single strike!
I set about treating the young guards' injuries.
The trader, clearly still worked up, narrated Owen's victory to the two boys. With every reverent word, I felt as though I was being derided as useless.
The others took to sleep, while I sat watch to keep the fire going. Owen rose, and came to sit beside me.
"Thanks for before."
I kept silent, but he pressed on.
"The boar only changed targets because you circled behind me and channeled your energy at it. It's thanks to you we're not carting home a corpse."
He sat waiting, apparently bent on receiving a response. His grin is infectious.
"I took the surest course of action," I replied as I held aloft my broadsword.
"I had my doubts this blade was up to the task."
The weapon's edge was chipped in places, its length bent. With a gentle shake, the pommel gave an unsettling rattle. Owen burst into laughter at the noise.
Apparently my response passed muster. He continued, his grin never flagging.
"Starting tomorrow, you'll stay at my place. I'll give word to my father to open a room for you."
I was dragged on this hunt, but if it earns me a real breakfast, it's a bargain I'd take gladly.
The innkeep's voice and the smell of coffee being laid on the table roused me from my thoughts.
"You're from Ancheim, eh? You'll be wanting extra sugar, then."
Politely declining, I took a sip. Quality beans, roasted to perfection... Exquisite.
After the hunt, we'd carried the wounded back to town. We tied the boar to a high tree branch; Owen said the townspeople would come for it later.
After seeing to the boys' treatment, Owen invited me to his home, the inn.
"Savior" was the title he used when introducing me to his father. I was mortified.
I was on a journey of personal discovery, originally come from Ancheim... They bought my arbitrary lies without hesitation. They welcomed me.
That evening, we dined early, and well. The boar had been carted back to town, and our share of the meat filled a table.
Once Owen returned from the palace, we sat down to feast. The innkeep is a brilliant cook, and we ate, drank, and reveled into the night.
"Come by the palace tomorrow. I want you to meet the king."
He repeated himself time and again, words slurred from the wine, despite my pretending to be asleep.
I've been in Caldisla a week, with no sign of the smoke signal. I join Owen in his training some mornings, walk the city streets, chat with the elderly, drink with the sailors at the docks, arm wrestle the drunks... Mostly, I just pass the time.
Today was another peaceful afternoon, the same as any other.
Owen was at the palace since morning. I was enjoying a cup of the innkeep's coffee.
It happened in an instant. I felt as if someone was set to plunge a knife into my back. I turned, and saw a window.
Through it, the northern sky was on fire in a flash of pure white.
Moments later, the inn shook. An earthquake? Shockwave?
All of Caldisla trembled.
The innkeep moaned about a set of heirloom teacups breaking. I had my doubts that teacups would be the worst of the damage.
Outside, I spied some injured people, but the city and palace stood unharmed.
Another flash lit the sky to the northwest. Close. The Norende Plateau, perhaps...
It wasn't till the following morning that Owen came home. By the time he finished muttering about his morning training, he was snoring.
A knock at his door put an end to that brief rest that afternoon.
"The river's jammed with rubble!"
After receiving the scout's report, Owen wolfed down the late breakfast his father had readied, then turned to me.
"Sounds like I may need a hand later."
I nodded, eyes fixed on the northwestern sky.
The bridge across the Caldisla River has lain in ruin since the duchy felled it. Now, a flotilla of further rubble and countless corpses approach from upstream.
Upstream means the Norende Canyon, and the village of Norende at its source. I suppose that's our epicenter.
Owen and I split up and joined the others searching for victims.
Owen's team searched the river's mouth, while I gathered men from town to search further upstream.
I've a long sword at my side—a new one, this time, in good condition. Seems the smithy's been busy.
The armorer, the old trader, and a dockhand joined me on the shadowy path through the canyon.
A few paces in, the armorer spotted something floating by: a young man, floating face up and snagged on the rocks.
We ran to his side.
"He's breathing! The boy's alive!"
While the others rejoiced, I was more concerned with the ominous shadows surrounding us.
"What are monsters doing here?"
There ought not be monsters so close to human settlement. Not in these numbers.
The townspeople were clearly overwhelmed. No doubt this was their first such encounter.
I hesitated, unsure for a moment. But no, I had to take action.
"When I give the signal, hoist this boy out and sprint for the canyon's mouth. Is that clear!?"
A nod returned from each of them.
Sudden movement would distract the creatures for a moment. I hoped that was all I'd need.
"Thankfully, both merchants escaped, as well as the dockhand with the unconscious boy across his shoulders.
Left alone, I faced a quickly-closing circle of enemies. So be it, I thought. Come closer, then. A bit more... A deep growl emerged from my chest.
When I emerged from the canyon on shaky legs, I was greeted by three anxious faces.
"It was this fellow that saved me," I said, holding aloft the badly worn longsword. A huge, proud grin threatened to split the armorer's cheeks.
We hurried the boy back to town.
I carried him to the inn.
"I need spirits and all the bandages you've got. And gramps, all the potions you've got, too!"
I laid him in a bed by the window, stripped him down, and had a look at his wounds. Thankfully, they were light, though he still showed no sign of stirring.
Owen's group returned soon after, a few of his men wounded. They'd run into monsters as well. Leaving men to guard the gates, he made for the palace to report and formulate a plan.
When he came by to deliver the medicine, the old trader remarked that the boy's clothing bore a Norende pattern.
Three days the boy has stayed at the inn, and still no sign of waking. The innkeep says he's run a fever the entire time.
This afternoon is a warm one. Now I'm watching the innkeep nod off at the counter.
The aftershocks have stopped, and peace is slowly returning to the city, but a shadow lingers over the earth, the sky, and the townspeople's hearts.
Glancing through the window, I saw people motioning toward the port. Another merchant ship, I thought, but no. Their shouts were anxious, not excited.
I stepped outside. Following the gaze of the others in the street, I saw a merchant vessel drifting into port.
But something was wrong. The ship was listing hard, its aft mast broken.
I sprinted down the hill.
As I ran, I noticed a dark, heavy color spreading through the water from the mouth of the bay inward.
I caught snippets as I passed.
"The sea's begun to rot."
"Ships can't leave the bay."
"No fish in the last few days."
A few days? Then the change began when the quake hit...
The ship listed further, rescue boats surrounding it.
Most of the cargo had already been cast overboard.
When the boats reached the pier, a parade of passengers and crew emerged, each looking more exhausted than the next.
By some miracle, there were no lives lost, though most of the freight followed the ship to the bottom of the bay.
The merchants mourned their lost profits and the crew their vessel. The seamen had lost their sea, and the passengers were now stranded. Despair ran rampant.
Except for one young girl.
She was full of questions. About the quake four days prior. About the flash that lit the sky. About Norende.
"Did you know someone in the village? Family, perhaps?"
Her jaw set at my query. Was it anger? Fear? She wordlessly shook her head from side to side.
"No? I just figured, hearing you ask about the quake so soon after weathering the sea. I thought maybe you were a friend of that boy's."
"Boy? What boy?" came her reply. Suspicion played on her face. But as the next boat reached the pier, we were shooed out of the harbor.
"Another visitor from Ancheim, eh? You must be tired. Why don't you stay with us till you're settled?"
Hmph. I recall a different sort of greeting. I cast a sour smile his way, and he responded with a grin.
"We've a sick one in the back. I hope you won't mind."
The girl replied with a nod.
Her name, I learned, was Agnès.
She seems guarded about her past. Not that I can talk.
Conversation continues to be awkward.
She shows interest in what was happening in this country when the quake hit. For my part, I ask her about the sea.
Her ship had left before the earthquake struck. She says about halfway between Ancheim and Caldisla, their pace began to slow.
The seawater clouded, and dead fish began to float to the surface. First small ones, then larger.
As they neared port, the wind died. It was pure luck the ship drifted in before going calm.
Other vessels they'd passed in the bay, she reported, were less fortunate.
She listened as I recounted what happened in the canyon, the color draining from her face.
I told her the village was likely at the quake's epicenter, and that monsters had flooded the area in its wake.
We talked late into the night.
An urgent wire from Caldisla came during the night.
"Sky Knights routed.
"The vestal and crew commandeered the S.K. ship, with Edea in tow."
The Flor-Cheim Inner Sea remains unsullied, and serves now as a holding place for ships from neighboring waters as well.
I walked the port asking after the vestal's whereabouts (or those of the ship she stole, at least), but was unable to uncover anything useful.
My continued search brings me to Ancheim proper. The ship's almanac has this to say of it:
"A clockwork metropolis, nestled in Harena's sandy bosom. Here time, above all, is sacred. A massive timepiece crowns the kingdom, fueled as all of Ancheim is by the ceaseless currents originating from the Temple of Wind to the south."
I crossed the desert and arrived at the city's edge.
It seems those ceaseless winds have ceased in the chasm's wake. Deprived of a precious power source, Ancheim's people now suffer under forced manual labor.
Those I met were too tired and apathetic to answer my questions.
One man, perhaps motivated by the coin I flashed, blushed awkwardly as he stammered this:
"T-try, the Yulyana Woods..."
I reached out to hand him the money, but he turned and ran without taking it. Very odd.
I returned to my almanac.
"Yulyana Woods: The hidden heart of an ancient wood northeast of Ancheim."
The air in front of Ancheim's royal palace was taut.
The vestal heaped abuse upon the king, then presented something to the agitated masses assembled there.
It was a chain bearing an evil sigil. The glassy-eyed mob reached fever pitch...
The vestal pointed south, and the delirious mob turned their eyes to the sky, crying out her name.
I moved to approach her, but the zealous crowd was packed tight.
Fearing for his life, the king fled to the palace, escorted by his guard.
Good. They haven't come by...
I was worried I might run into them here. That would complicate matters.
I could do little more than beg her help in the broadest of terms, then it was back to my ship and away again.
Though perhaps a bit out of date, the ship's almanac has this to say of Florem:
"True to the old teachings, Florem's women live in chaste humility, in coexistence with the spirits of nature."
And of the land's people:
"Devout Crystalists, they reject war and conflict, instead choosing lives of peaceful reflection."
Sounds like a recipe for carnage if those two heard these words...
After three weeks of anxious silence, they finally sent word.
"The wind vestal entered the Sacred Flower Festival."
It's been four years since I stood here. The fortress stands grim and imposing as ever.
Just what do they aim to do with a sword that large?
My guide greeted me respectfully. I suppressed my desire to break his face.
Ugh, enough! Stop talking! I know about this land and its resources without your yapping.
- Mythril Steel
An exceptionally hard metal refined from locally-mined ore. Upwards of 80 percent of the world's mythril originates in Eisenberg's mines. In rare cases, the same veins have yielded orichalcum.
An extremely precious metal, found exclusively in Eisenberg. Its durability is unrivaled, making it ideal for use in weapons and armor. Also notable is the extreme amount of energy released when the metal is melted under high pressure.
It's all common knowledge. Does he think we don't have schools?
Upon entering, I found the place utterly unchanged. I still have that old memo on the Starkfort's status and layout.
We soon arrived at the top floor.
"Just how long do you intend to chase at my heels!?" When I barked at the guide, he seemed genuinely confused. A waterfall of sweat poured from him.
A guffaw rang out, cutting off any further tirade. The guide scuttled off, and a giant hand came clapping down on my back.
Someone please explain to me how I wound up defending this brat.
Ah, right. Because that fat scum and the weakling started eagerly talking about torturing the information out of him.
I'm not worried about this weakling Astrae. I could handle him with my eyes closed.
But the drugs the fat one cooks up—the poisons, especially—could ruin the child's body.
And so we stood there, staring each other down for a full half-hour...
It wasn't for another thirty minutes that old man battleaxe caught wind of the standoff and came to my rescue.
Fatty and I were both drenched in sweat by that point. Astrae and the brat had passed out.
In the end, the child became my responsibility.
Astrae is still spewing complaints, but it sounds like fatty was chewed out hard for his hand in this latest stunt.
Seems the kid is grateful for having been spared, even by someone like me. He's started to open up a bit.
He's eight years old, and lost both parents to the war. His grandfather took him in, until disease claimed him as well. Textbook orphan story.
He was rounded up with the other orphans and put to forced labor. Between ditching work and saying strange things, he drew the guards' attention, and that landed him here.
My efforts have earned me an unruly roommate.
When he's asleep, he's no different than any other kid...
I thought to turn in for the night as well, but the words he mumbled in his sleep as I put out the light stopped me cold.
He begged me to bring him with me. In the end, I caved.
He pulled a lever in the rock of somesuch, and a tunnel into the magma caverns opened up.
I'd never felt such heat.
Between the steep, narrow path, this blasted heat, and having a brat in tow, my progress was miserably slow.
During one of our short breaks, I was taken unawares by one of Edea's tirades.
Distracted or not, careful to watch my back or not, I had allowed the enemy to draw near without so much as realizing it. Absolutely mortifying.
"Let the boy go!"
I wasn't about to risk combat with the brat at my side. Even I have my limits.
He was nearly passed out from exhaustion. I laid him behind the rocks and stepped forward.
I saw no other choice but to fight...
In the short while since I'd last seen them, the vestal, Tiz and Edea's faces had grown older. Stronger.
Their teamwork isn't half bad, either. I busied myself with the vestal while thinking on how best to drive back Edea without harming her.
"Stay back! Don't come here!"
All I could do as I saw the boy stumbling closer was shout.
The caverns shook, and the ground beneath him gave way.
Tiz was the first to react.
"Hang in there. We'll get you up!"
"Let go... We'll both fall!"
"Agnès, leave me! Go!"
"Mrgrgr! My grip... It's slipping!"
I acted without thinking, clutching Edea to me and pulling her to safety.
Magma roared past beneath me.
We stood there, wordless until we caught our breath.
"Thank you..." Edea began. "I suppose I owe you for that."
I reflexively jumped back.
Edea stood there, Ise-no-Kami held drawn and ready. Some thanks...
Agnès shielded the boy while Tiz came to join Edea.
As the sound of her swing cut the air, the ground beneath me crumbled once more...
I saw the look of shock on Edea's face as if time were standing still.
I slowly fell toward the magma below, joined by a shower of falling rock.
My vision went red.
When I woke, my body refused to respond. I think I was lying down. My eyelids felt as though they were glued shut.
A familiar voice grated in my ear...
"Of course he'll recover. Just whom do you think you are addressing, mm? If I've orders to fix him, I'll see he's fixed...as much as I may enjoy his current state. He'll live, though I'll be sure he suffers for having humiliated me. Hyah heh heh..."
The days that followed were hell.
His breath reeked as he spoke.
"Aww, does it hurt? Hyah hyah hyah... I just gave you the most painful drug I know. And here you can't move a muscle to stop me. Such a shame, isn't it? Ahh hyah hyah hyah!"
Some day I will carve this pig apart, so help me...
I awoke to familiar engine noise and the smell of oil, but sleep soon found me once more.
When I next woke, I was floating in some kind of liquid. I could feel it bitter in my mouth, stinging my nose and filling my lungs. I thought I was drowning and tried to struggle, but my body still refused to obey. I quickly slipped back into darkness.
A cold, unpleasant voice woke me.
"A nasty bit of work, this... Torture, under the guise of treatment. It was wise to transport him here when we did. A few days more, and, well... Heh. Worry not, I'll have him back good as he was. You have my guarantee."
The voice next turned to me.
"And how are we feeling?"
My eyes opened, stung by the light and medicated fluid.
"Today is the twenty-fourth. You've been out a month and a week, but worry not. None of your correspondence seems especially pressing. ...See?"
He help a slip of paper up to the tank. "Bring the orphan to the inn of origin," it read.
"What does it mean?" he asked. "Is it code? I can't make sense of it."
It made little sense to me, too, but I felt relief at knowing the boy was alright.
"That wasn't your only inscrutable message."
I drifted in and out as he read more, catching only snippets. "Earth Crystal... Grandship... Engine room..."
Some days (weeks?) later, the liquid was drained from the tank, and I was left to stave off gravity with atrophied legs.
"Buck up. You'll be back to your old self given a week. I made well sure of that."
With that final dismissive comment, he turned and left.
I was moved to a civilian hospital to recover.
I trained back up to full stamina in six days, mostly out of spite.
No trace remained of the burns I assume covered my body, and he'd reversed any effects of whatever that pig had injected me with while he was at it. It galls me to say, but the man does good work.
How many days have passed since I left his side?
A pillar of light has stood above the southern sea for some time now, just as he predicted.
That leaves little room to doubt his second prediction will hold true.
Within the coming days, the vestal and her friends will come here.
I only pray I have the strength to stop them as I was asked to...
Thinking back, the vestal's followers have been with her from the start. Ever since Caldisla.
Agnès Oblige, vestal to the Wind Crystal...
I never imagined the young girl I met on that pier would bear such a fate.
And Tiz Arrior.
For the boy I pulled from that canyon river to become a guard and ally to the vestal on her journey...
It seems on so many counts, I bear the fault for all of this.
A long, harsh journey to erase the Great Chasm.
A vestal who crossed the putrid sea and stagnant air to arrive.
A boy whose home was swallowed.
In retrospect, they seem a natural pair. Inevitable, even.
And Edea... I expect you, too, will join the vestal here.
You were ever a tomboy. Capricious. Pure and stubborn. Quick to tears... Perfect.
I know not what it is you see in the vestal. What spark resonated within you. But I swear this now, I will keep you safe. At any cost.
I always longed for a family...
I will not see it destroyed!
The ship's siren has begun to sound, and the pilot's taking her up, just as planned.
The time is come, then. This may be the last entry I am able to write.
I'm removing Edea's picture from its frame and placing it within these pages. I want her by my side...