1: Partners

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"What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies." -- Aristotle

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The rain was thick and heavy, and the sky it fell from a depressing, perpetual grey. Few peoples had ever been able to stand the kind of weather the western lands of the Mist Continent were assaulted with on an almost never-ending basis. The precipitation didn't always cover an area so widespread that it included the Burmecia Arch, either, but today was not an exception.

The two figures walking slowly towards the Arch were garbed almost entirely in red, and seemed to be the only vestige of colour in such a monochrome environment.

"At least they'll see us coming," the first of the two shouted over the roar of the rain and thunder with a grin, shuddering as icy water dripped down the back of her neck. "So they won't, you know, try to kill us after being surprised by our appearance?"

"Always the optimist, Cera," her partner smiled, pausing for a moment to tilt his head forward. A funnel of the rainwater that had collected in his hat poured down and dribbled onto his sopping leather boots. "Does Burmecia really suffer from eternal rain?"

"I doubt it. Just enough to make it look like it never stops." Cera took her own hat off completely for a moment, eyeing the pathetically drenched white plume stuck in the headwear's top and wringing out her similarly coloured hair; the loose plaits she wore it in were sodden and heavy, and flapping into her heart-shaped face. "You know, Eril, we might as well strip naked - these clothes are just weighing me down with the amount of water they're holding in."

"You first," Eril jibed, and instinctively ducked the hand she swept playfully at his head.

"Say, where did our guide go?"

Eril pulled wet strands of white hair from his eyes and squinted against the rain in the direction of the Burmecia Arch. "Think he's waiting for us?"

"Let's go find out."

The two pressed onwards, and only stopped again when they reached the outskirts of their destination. The reason for their hesitance was obvious enough - their Burmecian guide was lying on the floor, the puddle he had fallen into on the way down laced with inky red streaks. Four other dragoons, only two of them adults and one of those elderly, were huddled near the gate to Alexandria itself, barred from their relative by an Alexandrian soldier each. Two others were hovering around the injured Burmecian, pointing their swords warily at him.

"Not exactly the way I wanted to begin," Eril muttered to Cera, who was carefully donning her rose-tinted glasses.

"Nor I. Well, let's just wing it, shall we?"

"Don't we always?"

With that casual admission, he sauntered closer to the Alexandrian soldiers. At the sight of a pair of new participants, the two nearest women tightened their formation and made sure that their weapons were in plain sight.

"Honestly, there's no need to make so much fuss," Eril said disapprovingly. "Why ever did you strike him?"

"He approached us with ill intent," the shortest soldier said uncertainly. "Who sent you, red mage?"

Eril performed a graceful little bow. "Why, this Burmecian came for help, and we represent the Red Order in its entirety. How could we refuse when we heard that Alexandrians had arrested an unarmed family on its own land?"

The other, obviously less soft-spoken soldier pushed past her companion. "Her Majesty, Queen Brahne, is quite explicit in her request that you interfering white-haired devils keep your noses out of Alexandrian business, so be on your way before we arrest you as well!"

"Interfering white-haired . . ." Eril quickly bit his tongue. "The Red Order stands strictly on neutral ground. We are only here to uphold the peace. This family -"

" . . . could easily have been planning a rebellion against Alexandria and have intended to use this border gate as a means of access!"

The red mage raised an eyebrow. "I have an alternative theory: that, due to the absolute decimation of their entire city, they were on their way to a safer haven and only paused to rest at this gate."

Snarling, the Alexandrian soldier took another step forward, her sword poised. "Are you denouncing the activities of the Alexandrian Kingdom?"

"My lady, I'm a red mage. We never pass judgement. Now, if you'll just step aside, I'll heal this gentleman and -"

"Don't move!" She darted forward and pressed the blade of her sword against Eril's stomach. The red mage held his gloved hands up in automatic submission . . . or perhaps not.

"You look overworked, my lady. You should . . ."

He broke off and swung abruptly to the side, grabbing the trailing edge of his crimson cloak with one hand and dragging it over the soldier's head. She cried out in surprise, but her protests were lost when he wove a spell out of sight of her approaching comrades and let her drop heavily to the floor.

" . . . rest awhile," he finished with a grin. "Cera, I believe that was your cue?"

"You smooth bastard," his companion accused with a laugh, and nonchalantly channelled the downpour towards the charging soldiers with a flick of her wrists and a short burst of concentration. The sudden blast of water sent them sprawling to the cobblestones.

"We're supposed to be non-violent mages, Cera," Eril reprimanded her as he knelt besides their fallen guide and cast a quick succession of healing spells about his shallow, but nonetheless nasty wound.

"That was non-violent. Now", and she turned back to the soldiers, who were struggling to rise to their feet with the force of the water holding them back, "we'll be taking this family back with us. They're exhausted enough as it is, and I'm sure you don't want us to waste anymore of your valuable time, so we'll just be off now."

The torrent of rainwater froze in mid air and splashed to the floor as Cera ceased the spell and beckoned the cowering dragoons to her. They came with no fuss whatsoever, their fear still heavily ingrained in their wide eyes. Eril was helping the now conscious male dragoon to his feet and supporting him at the waist.

"Wait! Queen Brahne will have your heads, mages!" one of the Alexandrians shouted.

"I should like to see her try," Cera grinned at Eril.

"I shouldn't," he replied, attempting to poke her in the side with his elbow for her cockiness and failing miserably with the dragoon's weight taking all of his attention. "Are they following?"

"Are you jesting? Eril, I bet they've barely even got up off the floor yet."

"Are you sure about that?"

Cera craned her head backwards. "Well, okay, if you want to be accurate, they're actually on their feet."

"Oh?"

"And . . . drawing their weapons."

"Hmm."

"And . . . charging straight at us."

Eril sighed and adjusted his hold on his injured client. "Then I suggest we start running. Like, now."

"Good plan!"

***

Gathering the two cups of steaming liquid from the counter, Bobo carefully began to make his way over to the well-lit table in the corner of the room. He had been a landlord since he'd been old enough to drink, interacting with countless varied drinkers, and yet no one puzzled him more than the pair of mages who frequented his bar. The only predictable thing about them happened to be the purchase they made after every mission, and even that was unusual when compared to the desires of the masses: they were his most regular customers, and yet he'd never seen them purchase a single drop of alcohol. That went against his grain.

Normally, his waitress would have been doing this, but he'd dismissed her early because of an unusual lack of business. Setting both cups down on the table, he shook his head at them both. "I don't know. Most people enjoy a nice cold one after a good day's work, but you two defy nature!"

"I like to think so," Cera grinned, flashing a handful of gil at him.

He took the money in one pudgy hand, dropping the change into the front pocket of his overalls. "Whatever you say! Two herbal teas, laced with ether as usual."

As the landlord returned to the bar to stash the gil, Cera sighed and sunk further into her seat. "Phew, it's been a while since I've been this tired. How are you holding up?"

Her partner smiled, sipping carefully at his hot drink. After the first mouthful, his charmingly irregular features relaxed significantly. "Exhausted, and if my clothes ever dry properly, I'll be surprised. I can't wait to get back to the inn, but who am I to mess with tradition?"

"Damn right!" The red mage lifted her mug in appreciation of said 'tradition', before taking a long, deep draught and sighing again. It had taken them two days of straight travel to reach Lindblum, but the family they had helped rescue were already on their way to see Regent Cid about seeking asylum. She didn't suspect they'd have any trouble at all. They'd only just returned from the castle themselves, but the two friends made a habit of sharing a drink after every successful negotiation. The hour was such that Cera and Eril were the only two people in the small bar that hadn't either left or collapsed due to the extent of their alcohol consumption. Considering that both red mages were teetotal, the latter wouldn't be happening anytime soon.

"If you weren't Alexandrian, Eril, I'd curse that nation out loud," Cera announced suddenly, frustration wrinkling her brow.

"It's never stopped you before," Eril said under his breath, covering his smile with one gloved hand.

"What?"

" . . . I said nothing."

"I'll bet," she glared. "But, I mean, did you hear what those Alexandrians called us? White-haired devils indeed!"

Eril frowned for a brief moment. It was common knowledge that red mages had white hair, an attribute that had nothing to do with age. That much was accepted as fact, even if no one was really sure how it happened. After all, no one was born a red mage - it was something one trained to become, and hair faded to white as one handled more and more magic over the years. The majority of the Red Order was in agreement that the contact with the odd combination of both white and black magic could have something to do with the phenomenon.

But the encounter at the Burmecia Arch was the first time Eril had ever heard of the unusual characteristic being invoked in an insulting way.

"There is something very off with Alexandria of late," Cera continued, pursing her full lips. "I mean, attacking Burmecia? Queen Brahne had no quarrel with the dragoons!"

"You shouldn't judge, Cera, at least not in public. Doesn't do much for our image."

She ground her teeth irritably. "I know, I know. But it's difficult to stay neutral when the world is like it is. When things get personal. Don't you think?"

"Isn't that what red mages are for?" Bobo interjected, pulling up a stool and manoeuvring his considerable bulk onto it. Cera and Eril automatically shifted the table to accommodate him - late night social sessions with the gruffly blatant but generally friendly landlord were ingrained in their behaviour by now. "I mean, neutrality and all that stuff? An unbiased perspective for when things get personal? And a fistful of whoop-ass for when the people receiving the aid don't find it quite to their liking and get angry?"

"Got it in one," Cera nodded. "It's just that lately everything political has gone haywire. And I do so hate politics!"

"Is there anyone who doesn't?" Eril laughed, well aware of his friend's intense dislike of political affairs. "Eril the person, not Eril the red mage, thinks that Queen Brahne might be suffering from paranoia. Or even provocation."

"Who would provoke her? No one will benefit from a full-scale war between the Mist nations," Bobo said grimly, shaking his head. "Still, Regent Cid was the King's close friend. Lindblum won't be touched. You can rest assured!"

Cera laughed jovially at his confidence, but Eril raised the broad cup to his lips, lowering his amber eyes to the liquid within it. Brahne in her current state didn't seem very stable, and he considered it foolish to render anything safe. He certainly didn't envy the red mage whose job it would be to record the situation with neutral words!

"So," Bobo said in a tone that suggested whatever he was about to say had been on the tip of his tongue for a while. "What do you think of these . . . these black mages?"

"Rumours, and nonsense ones at that," Cera snorted.

"The dragoons swear on their King's life that it was black mages that attacked their city."

"There can be none," Eril said, supporting his partner's claim.

The landlord's face crinkled with confusion. "I don't get why not . . ."

"It's fairly straightforward," Cera shrugged nonchalantly. "White mages are in tune with white magic, and red have an affinity for both colours. A black mage would need to be in tune with black magic."

"So?"

"Well, black magic is raw, destructive energy." Eril shuddered. "No sentient being that exists can remain uncorrupted or even alive after having it run through their veins in its pure form. There are many that have tried . . . but it's either both colours or white. No exceptions."

Bobo grunted. "Fair enough. You obviously know what you're -"

The three of them fell into strained silence as every candle and lamp in the pub blew out simultaneously, leaving them in complete darkness.

"How did that happen?" Cera whispered tensely, and glanced over at the entry door - it was shut tight. No windows were open, either.

The high-pitched screams that erupted from outside the inn were preceded by a booming explosion that rocked every object in the bar. Everyone still aware of how much they'd had to drink gripped the seat of their chairs as they rattled across the floorboards. A mere second after the vibrations died away, Eril and Cera leapt to their feet, securing hats and cloaks as they moved.

"What the hell's going on?" Bobo demanded, as yet another resounding blast caused a random bottle behind the bar to fall free of its rack and shatter against the floor.

"Stay here," Eril told him, gloved hand on the door handle. "We'll find out."

The landlord seemed about to protest, but made no move towards them. "Well . . . be careful, you fools."

"Will do!" they chorused, and pressed into the Industrial District's main street.

***

The air was warm and muggy with the promise of rain - and greasy with the thick stench of smoke. Eril and Cera caught that much as they bounded into the twilight darkness of the street, and were almost stomped into the ground by a stampede of frenzied people that flooded from the station to the right. The two backed up against the door, trying to assess the situation.

They had been partners and friends for such a long time that words weren't always needed between them. Basic communication could be achieved through subtle gestures and facial expressions that any ordinary person wouldn't even pick up on, let alone be able to interpret. This ability was useful in official negotiations, when they needed to talk to each other without alerting whatever parties might be present, but right now, with the screaming reaching fever pitch and the chaos around them increasing rapidly, it was invaluable.

Cera slipped her crimson spectacles onto her nose - she was expecting a fight of some sort, and not without reason. Her vision clear, she nodded at Eril and the two slid amongst the crowds, heading against the frenzied flow of people. Most of them she didn't recognise as being from the Industrial District; had they fled from a different section? It would explain why so many were coming from the station.

The city of Lindblum was immense, spanning many levels and a considerably broad expanse of land. The Industrial District was low in comparison to the other sections of the capital, but Cera could still see flames raging in far too many areas. Dark silhouettes hovered above the city, harbingers of doom illuminated garishly by their own weapon fire. The collective screams of the townsfolk echoed louder than the sound of the endless explosions.

Cera felt a flood of patriotic anger flood through her body. Lindblum was her home, dammit! She'd been born and raised here . . . and to see someone so casually destroying it made her want to spit fire. There was no grief - only cool fury and a silent promise of vengeance against the perpetrators.

Everyone in the street flung themselves to the ground and into doorways as a pillar of fire erupted from the entrance to the underground air cab building, white-hot flames roaring out of the darkness and searing the small square. Cera shut out the cries of people who had not entirely escaped the blast, already allowing her blood to sing with white magic in preparation for healing -

And she quickly channelled the energy back to its darker colour at the sight of the creatures that ambled out of the smoking station staircase.

"Impossible . . ." she mouthed, stunned, but the evidence was right before her eyes.

Shuffling out of the blackened hole, entirely in step with one another, were lines of black mages. They could have been little else - Cera had heard the dragoons' descriptions of the inhuman monstrosities. Bulky, slow, and garbed insultingly in the traditional clothing of a master mage, their plodding pace was completely at odds with the sheer chaos that emanated from them. Beneath broad, pointed hats, a pair of blank, glowing eyes sat nested in complete darkness.

As one, the black mages exited the station, pivoted to face the panicking crowds, raised their arms, and said, in a tone as dull and flat as stone: "Kill!"

Cera's throat went dry as the air began to crackle with magic, and she jumped to her feet, pushing aside citizens of Lindblum left, right and centre in her frantic effort to reach the front of the crowds. The spell she intended to cast was already burning in her fingertips, singing through her blood . . .

The mages' combined Thunder spell was powerful enough to throw her and many townspeople backwards despite the protective barrier she raised at the last second. A pair of strong arms caught her before she could topple to the floor.

"Eril!"

"We'll have to take them down," her friend said grimly, and helped her regain her balance. There was another eruption of screaming as the black mages began shuffling forward yet again. Backing up, the two mages glanced at the dark shapes in the sky.

"Alexandria," Cera mumbled, and flexed her fingers. "Okay, we can defeat these. Right?"

"I suppose we can try."

"Damn you and your pessimism, Eril." She started to wave the townsfolk backwards, forcibly pushing those that were so panicked they refused to move.

"Get the crowds out of the way, Cera. Into the bar or something. Then hurry back and give me a hand!"

She knew better than to argue against his generally sound judgement, and continued to usher the milling civilians towards the inn. There were far too many to fit inside, but the Industrial District was the smallest of all three in Lindblum, and they'd be safer indoors rather than on the limited streets.

Some of the people clearly did not want to survive. Cera wondered why the gods cursed her, as she had to slow down for those who collapsed into hysterics, or attempted heroism and charged back towards the black mages. There were moving bodies all around her, too many to count, most of them ignoring her shouted orders.

Then she saw why everyone seemed to be running back the other way. At the top of the Industrial District's main street, flashes of ethereal light were followed by more silhouettes. More black mages! Their cries of "Kill!" could be heard even down here. How could they appear out of nowhere? It was a dead end -

"Eril! I can't -"

Someone crashed into her right side, knocking the wind from her completely. She managed to avoid falling over, which could well have been deadly in such a narrow, people-filled space, but was pinned for a frighteningly long moment against an unmerciful lamppost. What scared her more than the fact that she could barely breathe was that she could hear both sets of black mages casting destructive spells, but couldn't see them - she wanted to know how Eril was faring!

Losing her patience, the red mage thrust the heels of her gloved hands into a floundering man's chest, deeming bruised ribs less painful than what would happen if some control wasn't gained over the situation, and forcefully made her way towards the back of the crowds. More than anything, she wanted to make sure Eril was okay, but the rear of the group was already being assaulted and she was needed there.

She reached the door to the bar and threw herself into it. The heavy oak portal swung open and she hit the stone steps with a profound thud. Shaking off the pain, Cera pushed herself to her feet and immediately started dragging people inside.

"Sorry, Bobo, but I need the use of your premises for the moment!" she yelled at the landlord, who was standing behind the bar with a comically stunned expression on his face.

Simultaneously hauling people inside, heading back through the door and cursing the buttered rolls from Benato's she loved so much that were almost certainly the cause of her not squeezing as lithely out of the doorway as she'd've liked, Cera noticed a significant thinning of the crowds. Those that weren't attempting to charge inside Bobo's bar were ducking inside other doors.

The red mage felt a rush of short-lived relief. Still no time to spend on Eril! Grimacing, Cera tapped into her spiritual energies and drew forth enough black magic to cast a quick Blizzard spell on the flames, remnants of the mages' spells and the cannon-fire raining down from above, skirting the houses on either side of the street. She immediately noted an extension of this strategy and manipulated the rivulets of crystalline ice down to the cracks in the cobblestones, where they began to flow towards the group of black mages, not halting until they had reached the shuffling figures and laced their way up the enemies' legs. Cera kept the spell unravelling until the mages couldn't shift their frozen feet, and finally dropped her trembling hands, attempting to shake some warmth into her icy fingers as she moved to the right. It wouldn't hold them for long . . . but long enough for her to glance back at her partner.

Eril had brought down three of the monstrosities with higher-level black magic than she had access to - her specialty was white over the alternative, with Eril enjoying more success with black. The balance was what made them so compatible as partnered red mages, but they worked best together.

"We need help," Cera whispered, unable to spend too long on her close friend's status; despite his one arm clutching at an unseen injury on his right side, he seemed able to continue.

There was a loud crack, and she averted her gaze altogether, readying another spell as one of the black mages pulled itself free of the ice at its feet. Clear of her trap, it raised its arms -

- and stopped. The mage stopped dead, dropping its limbs back to its side. Its companions, who had been casting careful Fire spells at the ice at their encased feet, followed suit, simply going limp with inactivity. Cera capped off the flow of black magic through her veins, puzzled and uneasy. She exchanged a quick look with Eril, whose enemies had also stopped moving; he was taking the chance to catch his breath. The people who had refused or failed to find shelter indoors stood alone or in groups, looking around in confusion at the sudden silence and stillness.

That's when she realised that the Alexandrian ships had ceased firing.

They were waiting. And the people of Lindblum would no doubt find out what for.

***

Magic is inaccurately named. There's nothing 'magical' about it at all - it is simply a natural energy, the driving force of elements and even life itself. Consequently, people who are 'gifted' with magic are simply people with the ability to 'see', 'feel' and, in the most extreme case, control these energies. Magic requires a conduit, and mages use their especially receptive bodies and spirits to bridge the gap and access it.

Reception of such energies is a double-edged sword. Not all magic is welcome or even harmless, and the extent of reception varies from person to person.

Which is why the incredible boom, and its successive wave of pure magic from the point of eruption, surged its way through Cera's feet-

legs-

body-

head-

And her vision went black with the force of it, only returning when she fell against a wall and smacked her skull against a helpful timber beam. Stunned, she struggled to catch her breath and only noticed the collective, foreboding silence when she looked up to see everyone gazing skywards.

Even Eril, who had never been as purely receptive as Cera and hadn't been hit with the full force of the blow, had paused on his way towards her, his mouth open and his eyes wide, focused on something she couldn't see from her angle . . .

Shaking the foggy pain from her head, Cera flew to her feet and to Eril's side, following his line of sight. What she saw caused any words she might have had for the situation to fly from the tip of her tongue.

In the epicentre of that pulse of magic was a monster. It rose from the ground, a pale pinkish monolith in the dim light, easily the width and height of the city in its entirety. As it expanded, onlookers could make out its features, but they inevitably cared only for one: the clanking gate that began to slide up into the roof of a cavernous maw of a mouth. Two beady eyes sat atop this, emotionless and promising nothing but pain and devastation in their intensity.

If it was at all possible, the sky darkened further. Cera became aware of a wind that was blowing towards the tremendous creature, her pigtails flapping in the artificial breeze . . .

But it was no breeze. Just as it became difficult to keep hold of her clothing and balance in the winds, the windows in the wall behind them all shattered with a grating shriek. Everyone ducked, expecting a shower of glass, but the debris never got the chance to rain down on them - it was sucked up towards the creature.

Eril grabbed Cera's wrist. She stared at him with wide eyes, for the first time in her entire life having nothing to say and no plans as to what to do to resolve the situation. She was nothing if not a control freak, and such unpredictable events terrified her deeply. His amber eyes urged her to keep it together, and she realised that he was pulling her towards Bobo's bar.

He got as far as grabbing the door handle before Cera's feet were pulled from beneath her by the force of the vacuum. Timbers and tiles were wrenched from the roof of the bar and swirled up into the mouth of the creature. Horrible, animated people-shaped things were whirling around amongst the debris . . . and the black mages, too! Alexandria didn't even regard its own troops with enough respect to spare them from this unnecessary slaughter.

Eril's gloved hand was clasped so tightly around her wrist that she could barely feel her fingers. But Cera didn't care - it had already occurred to her that she was likely to die any second. Numb fingers were the least of her worries.

Die.

The word sounded so permanent, so unchangeable. Was that because of the connotations it held? Or had someone simply selected an appropriate-sounding combination of vowels and consonants for its meaning?

Typical Cera. Staring death in the face and thinking about the finer points of language.

The door of the bar was made to swing inwards, and yet Eril couldn't apply enough pressure to it to make it open. She could see his grip on the handle loosening.

Well, the terror was gone, at any rate. Cera knew what awaited them once Eril let go. As long as there was no uncertainty, she had nothing to fear. Besides, she was hardly alone, was she?

Eril craned his head backwards, his narrow eyes gleaming.

"I'm sorry," he mouthed.

Cera shook her head, smiling. She let her hat fly from her head, indication that she was resigned to the likelihood that they would both follow it.

"At least you're going to suffer right along with me!" she screamed into his face, and he heard, but didn't smile. How could he? He felt responsible for them both right now.

Well, Cera knew there was nothing he could do. She gave over to the inevitable as he was pulled from the door and they were both drawn upwards by the sheer force of the wind.

But things didn't go as easily as she planned even then. The winds were so chaotic that she slipped from Eril's grasp, pulled along a separate path in the tornado. Her acceptance of her fate was replaced with panic as she saw a huge piece of debris swing in front of him - and then nothing more of him. The sky swirled from black to angry, burning red, spiralling forever . . .

Her mentality quickly degenerating into turmoil, Cera screamed, wanting Eril by her side and surrounded by open air and colliding with bodies and-

The winds abruptly died down. Cera's upward spiral slowed, and then she began to plummet towards the roofs of the city. The colour of her surroundings blurred from red, to orange . . .

To brown . . .

To black.

***

The monster had vanished, but had taken its victims with it. The city of Lindblum was burning, and behind the roar of the flames, the resonating shouts and cries of its citizens could be heard.

On her flagship, the Red Rose, Queen Brahne smiled arrogantly at the scene below. The battle had been short and one-sided, but she was no doubt the victorious entity.

Waving her ornate fan at the soldiers on deck, she ordered the ship onwards, right into the screaming heart of Lindblum, where she would deal the final blow.