By Daryl Falchion
"I'm walking down the line…That divides me somewhere in my mind…On the border line of the edge…My shadows the only one that walks beside me…My shallow hearts the only thing that's beating…Sometimes I wish someone out there will find…Till then I'll walk alone…" (Boulevard of Broken Dreams; American Idiot, Green Day)The Enlightened's Lost Tome of Wisdom (Vol. 10, pg. 554): Despair—Despair has many shades and comes in many forms. Some weather the storm, exhibiting little of the torment to the outside world. Others fall to pieces right before you eyes. Either way, it is an insidious emotion, convincing a person to face it alone…and woe be that one, for the road is long on Destitution Avenue.
Like a thousand soldiers, rain pounded on the cobblestone streets of Burmecia. Even for the city of 'Eternal Rain', this downpour was particularly fervent, obscuring sight and creating a less than sure footing. The dragon knight and the burmecian solider kept this in mind, sidestepping any pools of water and constantly wiping their chins. Still, the rain did not the deter them. Their spar continued in earnest, each trading blows.
"I'm glad they assigned you to be captain of the dragon knights!" exclaimed Dan, as he swept his trident over his head, blocking an attack from his opponent. "You certainly deserve it. I think you'd give sir Iron-Tail a run for his gil!"
The nickname of Fratley surfaced a myriad of memories for Freya and she smiled, one that did not reflect in her eyes. Then they narrowed, as the dragon knight spun on a heel to evade an attack. Following the momentum, Freya crashed her spear against his', locking them. That lasted mere minutes as Dan darted back, dropping to a crouch. Freya did likewise.
"I appreciate your kind words, Dan, however, when Sir Fratley returns he'll have his old job back."
"Freya," he said gently, "It's been months…And no one's heard from him."
"Nevertheless, I shall remain optimistic."
That said, Freya glanced at the enormous statue behind Dan. An ancient beast, slain by the city's first ruler. She knew the story. How often had Fratley recounted it? How often had she rolled her eyes yet still listened to his throaty voice detailing the battle? Before she could recall it at will, but now it vanished like rain disappearing through the cracks of the city's drainage.
Shaking her head to dispel the droplets as well as the memories, the dragon knight lifted her spear to meet Dan's. Such was the force, it drove both opponents back a step. Freya breathed heavily. "If Fratley were here, we'd not have a problem with the Antlion. We need him, Dan. I need him." The last few words were uttered so softly, Freya figured he'd be unable to hear them. Figured, and hoped.
"Freya, you're incorrigible." A swift strike from Dan as he spoke, one that Freya expertly dodged and retaliated with a diagonal riposte. Ineffective, as Dan blocked then muttered, his voice tinted with annoyance. "You complain about being unable to scare off one monster, but I can't even beat you. So, what does that say of me?"
Tapering off with her offensive, the dragon knight flushed, the color concealed by her white tuffs of hair. Though Dan's score remained zero as related to her, he proved a fearsome fighter in comparison to many of the burmecians. Freya well understood his frustration, considering that she'd rarely defeated Fratley. With his disappearance, Freya now ranked first.
A smile graced her lips, this time genuine. Dropping to a knee, the dragon knight purposely left her right flank unprotected as she feinted. As she anticipated, Dan capitalized, smacking the butt of his spear at her thigh. Immediately, Freya bowed her head in acknowledgement of defeat, the wide-brimmed hat shadowing her face. This sent Dan into a fury of joy.
"I beat you! I actually beat you!" The burmecian solider tossed his head back, water sliding down his deep purple cloak. "Wait until Doyle and Gray hear about this!"
Freya inclined her head. "Congratulations." With that, the dragon knight stepped under the eaves of a weapons shop to clean her spear. Burmecia's unique climate actually proved to be a valuable asset, or so the elders claimed. Some cheimcal inherent to the precipitation revitalized the burmecian fur (though rain from anywhere else in Gaia contained no such benefit). The same could not be said for their weapons, as exposure to water rusted anything made of steel.
"Let's have an early rematch, say, in an hour?" Dan followed her lead, running a cloth over his spear's blade. An uncharacteristic glint leapt into his eyes, brightening the blue. "Or are you afraid I'll repeat today's success?"
"I…" her voice died, as she considered. If Dan learned of her self-appointed mission, he'd seek to deter her course. Good friends were a rare commodity these days, and Freya appreciated his'. Still, oftentimes companions simply couldn't understand the necessity of completing some tasks alone. If Dan couldn't convince her to quit, he'd undoubtedly ask to accompany her.
Fratley didn't burden anyone. Why should she?
"As much as I'd like to have the opportunity to 'rain' on your parade," she said, her eyes now shining, "I have a meeting scheduled with Sir Gray. Before his leave, Sir Fratley requested that the king approve of city fortifications. With his momentary absence, the king has given the go-ahead. I'm heading to the barracks now to assist with the plans."
As she spoke, Freya surreptitiously eyed Dan, gauging his reaction to her…lie? No, not technically, but not the truth, either.
Fortunately, Dan nodded curtly. "Rain check, then?" Freya's white eyebrows rose exponentially at the joke, very uncommon for him, especially considering the loss of Fratley. Though she'd been hit the hardest, all of the dragon knights and soldiers longed for their leader to return. Freya was a stand-in; like a quick replacement for a favorite actor. Not a true successor, not even a satisfactory regent.
"Agreed. Take care, Dan."
Once the burmecian departed, Freya slumped onto the statue's foot. Rain continued to pour down her face, as she gazed up at the gigantic stone knife the beast suspended over her head. She gave a little sigh, trying to fight off the loneliness her task imposed on her. Fratley wouldn't despair like this. He'd tap his silly hat proudly and carry out his mission nary complaint or recourse. Fratley didn't need to depend on friends—he gave out so much but never took any in return.
Jaw set, Freya rose and strode down the avenue. Her clawed feet made little sound on the steps of an alcove she used to shake away some of the dampness. Then the dragon knight took off again. As she rounded a bend, a fountain loomed into view. Images of herself and Fratley superimposed themselves on the scene. Here they'd shared their first kiss. Freya remembered how she'd flushed. It reassured her that he'd fared no better.
Fratley…Good old dependable Sir Iron-Tail…stammering like a schoolboy.
However, Fratley wasn't there at the moment; instead, another young burmecian male stood there, the fountain spraying at regular intervals. Though she loathed delaying, the dragon knight couldn't tear herself away from the disconsolate expression on his face. Like a child lost in a forest, he hovered by the edge, clutching a single flower.
Her hand dropped on his shoulder. "Doyle, is that you?"
Doyle started, then spun on a heel. Unfortunately, his hasty movement set his hat aflutter. Like an entity independent from her body, Freya's hand darted out…and missed. Like a balloon, the felt hat drifted away into the sky. Then it vanished utterly. For a moment, the dragon knight couldn't face her friend. With a sigh, she choked out an apology. "Fratley would have caught it…"
Doyle shook his head. "Fratley didn't the last time. Thanks for trying anyways." The burmecian slumped onto the edge of the fountain. "I haven't seen you in weeks," he said. "How have you been holding up since Sir Iron-Tail's disappearance?"
"Well enough, thank you." The mention of her mentor only prompted the gnawing loneliness to creep back in so Freya pushed past the subject. With a hop, the dragon knight joined her friend on the edge. "What about you? Why the long face?"
In true Doyle fashion, he tried to shirk away from her scrutiny but Freya's gentle green eyes forced the words to spill from his mouth. "Oh, it's nothing much…just…Well, Lola and I are having a fight. She's really mad….and I thought this," one hand extended a wilted flower, "would smooth things over."
"But it hasn't?" A nod. "Let's see…" Freya picked her brain, remembering her long talks with Doyle's wife. Much of that time was spent listening to Lola joyfully expounding on her childhood at a chocobo farm. An expert rider, yet she'd not the chance to since moving to Burmecia after marrying Doyle. The woman was fond of the animals and missed them very much.
The dragon knight snapped her fingers, "Why don't you take her chocobo riding? Lola loves them. I bet she'd feel quite a bit differently, if you did."
Like fireworks at the Festival of the Hunt, Doyle's eyes lit up. "Of course!" He slapped his forehead. "She would love that! Thank you so much, Freya!" The ensuing embrace almost toppled the dragon knight, and she pushed him back.
"Glad to help…Sorry to be so abrupt, but the time is drawing short for a meeting I have. Say hello to Lola for me." Heaving the spear over her shoulder, Freya prepared to leap to another building when a hand clamped on her arm. Her head swirled to see Doyle retreat a bit then ask, "Ah, wait. Ah, would you, well, like to join me and Lola…for dinner?"
"Ah—Another time, perhaps. Farewell."
Doyle waved. "Goodbye!"
Leaping from building to building, Freya reveled in the water streaming her face. The claim of revitalization valid or not, still since her early childhood, the dragon knight enjoyed playing in the rain. She and Fratley spent many hours mock-fighting in their youth for entertainment, and, as they joined the army, continued this tradition to hone their skills.
After a traversing a mess of walkways and roofs, she happened upon her desired destination: The Burmecia Barracks. Their purple cloaks flapping in the wind two burmecian guards stood ward, as the dragon knight passed by with barely a nod. They knew her well. How often had she come here to train, plan and serve his Majesty? She found she could not recall.
With a firm hand, Freya pushed the double steel doors open. Rain and wind rushed in from outside, like an eager dog on the reverse course. Putting her back to the steel, the dragon knight forced them closed. It annoyed her briefly that Gray remained bent over a table, but such was his nature. Sighing, Freya crossed distance to him, her boots making slight noises from the water.
Gray didn't look up, one hand braced against the table while his other scratched his furry chin. Still, the dragon knight noted the frown that leapt into his lips. "It's good to see you again, Freya," he said placidly. That amused Freya. See her? His eyes never left the map! She took no offense, recalling his indifferent air.
"And as is with you."
"Heard anything more from the North, Sir Gray?"
"There is no word from the North."
She sighed. No word from Fratley, or those sent to fetch him. Not that she'd expected any, though.
Freya glanced over her fellow burmecian's shoulder as his finger traced the map. It landed on a single target, the desert lands south of the city. Known to many merchants only as The Mirage, few ever trekked the land without succumbing to hallucinations and, ultimately, to death. The desert stood in Fratley's path and more than once had Freya feared he'd ventured no further.
"What about the Antlion?
With a feather pen, Gray dotted the map, then connected them. "It's quite the elusive beast." Collecting his papers, the burmecian solider at last returned her gaze. "Not that it matters much, anyway. None could defeat it."
It was Freya's turn to avoid his gaze. "Fratley could have."
A fist slamming against wood made her look up to Gray's sharp eyes. "Damn it, Freya, that's a wild assumption. Even if Sir Fratley were to return, which I take leave to doubt will happen, that wouldn't do us any good. The beast is unbeatable at this time."
"No, no more. Fratley was a great warrior and a great person, but that doesn't mean he was infallible. You idolize him too much. Live your own life, Freya. He'd have wanted that, I'm sure."
"Fine. As you wish." Peeling aside the map, Freya noticed a stack of papers pinned together. The text was vaguely familiar…She'd seen a letter like this before. When at last recognition dawned, the dragon knight craned her head in Gray's direction. "Have you been holding out?"
Confusion marked lines in Gray's forehead. Then, his gaze dropped on the letter she held. It was not abashment that replaced the confusion, but rather, humiliation. When his hand darted out to reclaim the papers, Freya jerked back. "Oh, no, you don't." She teased him with it. "I'm so happy for you, Sir Gray. To have your son accepted into the University of Burmecia for training—that's quite an honor. Does he know?"
"No." Gray finally retrieved the letter. "And he won't."
The good humor drained from Freya's face. "Why?"
"I have my reasons."
"And I shall have them now."
The burmecian threw up his hands. "Please, Freya, don't. I can't bear to disappoint him."
"You know we were robbed last week, right?" Freya nodded and he sighed. "Well, the thieves stole a lot of our gil. If I pay for his training, I won't be able to pay for rent."
Gray's downcast expression tore at Freya's heart. A father's pride for his son was great indeed, but so was his concern for the welfare of the family. A no-win situation. His son was one of the few who had both talent and dedication. Burmecia would do well with him in their ranks.
Into her pocket went Freya's hand and out came the coins. One. Two. Three…and many more. As Gray watched, open-mouthed, the dragon knight set the exact amount of gil for the training on the table. Gratitude flashed on the burmecian's face, but also shame. He stammered a refusal but Freya's hand rose to forestall the protests.
"Take it. Consider it an investment to the protection of Burmecia."
"I don't know what to say."
"Say thank you."
As Gray was about to speak, a knock came upon the barrack's steel doors. After excusing himself, the burmecian attended to his visitor. While he was detained, Freya stared longingly at the map. It would prove useful in her sojourn…But taking something without permission was stealing…Then again, if she took it with the intent on returning it…
Her hands snatched it up and stuffed it into her pocket. To assuage her guilt, Freya laid two more coins. Not a moment too soon, either, for Gray returned to the table. His gaze swept the wood surface without noting (or perhaps acknowledging) the lack of the map. Instead, those eyes rose to meet Freya's, apologetic.
"I do so hate to cut our meeting short, but the king has summoned me." Gray hefted his spear. "Thanks again for the generous assistance. Be assured that it will be paid back, in full, as soon as I can collect the necessary funds."
Her hand waved dismissively. "I know you will. Take care, Sir Gray."
Once Gray left, Freya remained in the room. Her fingers drifted down to the crumpled map, as if to sooth a trembling heart. That moment of ethical ambivalence concerned her. If she followed through with her plans, her friends would be hurt. She knew how much losing Fratley upset them; well understood the pain herself. To shadow his wake was to increase their pain twice fold.
Fratley didn't doubt his mission…Why did she?
Though the dragon knight knew her course was true, her steps were heavy as she traversed Burmecia's many lamp-lit streets. Leaping from building to building, Freya easily found her way to the city's West Gate. Sticking her spear between her teeth, she climbed down a wall to wait in the shadows for the opportunity to commence her journey.
Her opportunity came shortly before the dawn with the changing of the guard. The loss of Fratley (and his subsequent rescuers) prompted the king to close off travel in the west, particularly in the Mirage. To enforce that rule, guards warded the gate at all hours. But Freya had inside knowledge into that—being employed by the army, after all—and sprang through the opening at the right instant.
No one noticed. Perfect.
The joy of that minor victory was quickly ripped away as the dragon knight stepped into the desert. With a tenacity that rivaled the rain, heat pounded her five-foot figure. Freya hauled her hat from her head and fanned herself. For a creature accustomed to cool and damp, this heat was all the more torturous. On several occasions it drove the dragon knight to her knees.
Every time, she stubbornly rose. Fratley hadn't stopped here…why should she?
Time passed in a blur for the burmecian, blending as a single haze much like her sight. Putting one clawed foot in front of the other, Freya trudged through the sand and skulls…Skulls? She glanced down. Indeed, several of varying sizes poked out of the sand dunes, increasing the further the dragon knight proceeded. Freya sighed, placing the hat back on her head to block the sun.
How had Fratley survived this? How would she?
Freya halted in mid-step.
In the distance…a man-shaped shadow.
No acknowledgment; not even a sound. Freya swiped sweat off her brow, but more populated her forehead almost instantaneously. Like a million ants, the heat continued to crawl over the dragon knight's body, nauseating her. That would not deter her. Freya marched with utmost swiftness to the still silhouette.
"Fratley! It's so good to see you again!" Not attentive with her footing, Freya stumbled face down. Her head popped out of the sand dune, spitting the sticky substance out her mouth. Then she rose, utilizing her spear as a crutch. "Fratley, can you hear me? Why don't you answer?"
In all this time, the man had not moved…
No, not just him. She wasn't moving, either…Or at least the dragon knight didn't appear to getting any closer…
The explanation eluded her like a dream's brief revelation fast faded by the waking. So absorbed by her contemplation, Freya missed the burrowing noise. Instinct screamed at her to flee, but instead the dragon knight slumped to her knees, her head spinning. The heat had at last taken its toll. Her green eyes closed…
Jump hard, jump high.
Who is this?
High above the sky.
Fratley…is that you?
Beyond the sleeping earth.
Fly higher than it all.
Soar…Soar until you are free!
As if weightless, Freya felt herself lifted. She could no more control her ascent than hold back the waves of the ocean. Gaia seemed to sink beneath her, and as the dragon knight glanced down, everything shrank. Desert sand swirled upwards to reach her, but fell short of the task. Its pathetic attempt prompted Freya to chuckle and then burst out into full-blown laughter.
"Freya, please wake up!"
After a false start, Freya's eyes sprang open, taking in the stinging sunlight. A shadow stood over her, someone she knew, but couldn't place the name. With a groan, she shifted her head. What greeted her film-filled gaze drew a small gasp from the dragon knight's lips.
Dan and Gray battled an insect-beast that easily towered them. Each of its red pincers dove for the burmecian soldiers. Dan ducked one while Gray leapt over the other. The beast's beady golden eyes flashed, frustrated, and drove its claws into the sand. Like a wave, sand rushed the burmecians, flooring them.
"The Antlion…" Freya murmured.
Fortunately, Dan recovered quickly enough to block a second pincer-grab with his spear. Gray wasn't so lucky. The beast lifted him over its head and near its teeth. Shouting, enraged and fearful, the burmecian soldier smacked his spear against its face. It emitted a high-pitched shriek, releasing him.
The freedom was short-lived however, as the Antlion snatched Gray again before he even reached the ground.
"Freya, we need your help!"
Still half-lucid, Freya turned her gaze upon the one who roused her: wide-eyed Doyle. Never before had the dragon knight seen him armed, yet the burmecian clutched a spear to his chest. Grabbing her own, Freya rose swiftly. Sand dropped, unnoticed, from her. "What is happening here?" she demanded, her eyes returning to the battle scene.
"We—We went looking for you. Gray said—"
Freya nodded. "I see, I see. No time for talk."
In a hand the dragon knight scooped up the skull of an animal indigenous to this arid region and hurled it at the Antlion. As anticipated, a pincer flew up to snatch it from the air. Freya continued her march, her hand again reaching for a skull and again flinging it at the Antlion. Predictably, the other pincer dove in, catching the second projectile. This time, though, it relinquished Gray to accomplish that.
A smirk crossed Freya's lips. That was one thing she'd not learned from her mentor.
Occupied with his 'prizes', the Antlion couldn't make a grab for Freya as she drove her spear into the sand and propelled into the air. With a slight jolt and she landed on its left shoulder. Beneath her clawed feet, the scales proved an unsteady foothold. Still, the dragon knight remained mounted, all the while the beast sought to throw her.
Ducking the pincers, Freya slammed her spear into its hide. Green blood burst forth, sticking to her fur. Hacking almost blindly, the dragon knight scored successive hits along its back and left shoulder, prompting it to scream. Beyond her indistinct vision, Freya saw Gray and Dan harassing its flanks, providing a window of opportunity to dispatch the monster.
That opportunity vanished a moment later, when the Antlion snatched her polearm and hurled it several feet away. The next few moments nearly had Freya following her weapon as the Antlion shook violently. Had the dragon knight a weaker stomach she might have emptied it. Yet, again, she held on.
Her friends fared even worse. Irritated by their feints and thrusts, the Antlion buried its pincers into the sand. A wave of sand engulfed the two, obscuring Freya's sight of them. When she had a clear view, she gasped. Instead of her two friends circling, there were two little mounds. Doyle rushed over to one, clawing viciously into the sand. Tears traced clean lines down his sand-rimmed face.
A shadow slipped over his form. The Antlion's.
Whether it was his self-preserving instinct or her command, the burmecian dropped flat. The pincer swept over him. Freya seized the moment to rush out across the appendage like a tree branch. Meanwhile, Doyle tossed up her spear. In the same movement she caught it the dragon knight thrust it deep into the pincer. With a howl, it retracted and Freya leapt off to land lightly on her feet.
"Freya, that's amazing!"
"The fruits of my training, I suppose." Freya muttered over her shoulder as she used her spear as a pick to reach Dan. With a hand, she hauled the sputtering burmecian out of his inopportune gravesite. By the time both hopped to their feet, Doyle and Gray recovered as well. So, too, had the Antlion and so the monster resumed its assault.
As he smacked his spear against a pincer, Gary shouted, "We cannot kill it, I fear. Even Sir Fratley would have a difficult time tackling such a beast."
"Any more tricks up your shelve, Freya?" asked Doyle hopefully.
A sly smile glistened in her green eyes as they darted to Gray, Doyle and lastly settling on Dan. "Mark well my moves Sir Dan, for you shall be facing them in our next match."
Crouching low, the dragon knight blazed toward the Antlion. Behind her, the three burmecians called her name, seemingly as a chant, more likely in fear of some suicidal sacrifice. An unnecessary fear. Though unhappy with the recent hand that the cards of fate dealt her, Freya had no intention of surrendering just yet.
As she neared within the reach of the pincers, the dragon knight dropped into a forward roll. Down came the pincers, neither of which connected. But Freya connected, when she halted right at its belly and stabbed upward with her spear. The beast shrieked then leered down at her. Its mouth opened to cavernous teeth, moving to make a meal of her.
She did so.
Jump hard, jump high.
Both, hard and high.
High above the sky.
The sun shined all around her.
Beyond the sleeping earth.
Fly higher than it all.
Soar…Soar until you are free!
Again as if weightless, Freya hovered in the air for the briefest of breaths. Smiling, she slammed her spear into the creature's brain. Blood followed her descent. When she reached the ground, the dragon knight threw up her polearm in protection, but found no such need. To her astonished eyes was the sight of Antlion in full retreat into the sand.
"Shall we give chase?" Doyle inquired, peering at the indentions produced by the monster's digging.
"Nay," came Dan's reply. "There will be another time."
"Still, the king will need to hear of this," said Gray.
For several long moments, Freya stared at her three friends discuss the battle. Long had she dismissed their offers of companionship and assistance. Why? To appear independent as she had assumed Fratley was? Yes. That was it too. But the dragon knight knew that was not all. Part of her kept distant to avoid the same feeling of loss as when her mentor disappeared.
Yet, didn't she need a friend the most after having lost one?
"How did you find me?" she stuttered, the thoughts jumbling in her head.
"You didn't appear for evening training so I went looking for you," Dan said.
"I bumped into Doyle who mentioned your meeting with Sir Gray."
As if he'd passed the conversation to him with a nod, Gray took up the story. "Once Dan dropped by my house with the news of your failure to show I suspected you might head off for either Fratley or the Antlion or both. And when this was missing," Gray hoisted the dog-eared map along with two coins. "I knew those suspicions were correct."
Freya flushed. "I—I truly planned on giving it back upon my return."
"If you returned," Gray said sharply. "And you must admit, that was doubtful."
Her mouth opened to protest but shut almost immediately after. That much was true.
"You came all this way….for me?"
As if in practiced harmony, the three burmecian males shared looks. Doyle's, of chagrin. Gray's, of annoyance. Dan's, of amusement. But all exhibited friendship. At an unspoken gesture, Dan stepped forward and laid his hand upon Freya's shoulder. His diamond-blue eyes pierced her—not in anger, but in concern.
"Freya…there's one thing I never told you after Sir Fratley left—of how disappointed I was with him. Fratley was a friend and friends help one another. Yet he failed to realize that and so he didn't ask for aid. Some view that as his strength, but that was actually his weakness."
"See," Gray poked in. "He wasn't infallible."
Freya lifted a hand to her face partially to shield from the sun, but more so to conceal her shame. "And I made that same mistake. I believed that I should ask for no help nor need any." Fratley had always so seemed indestructible to her, so incapable of faults. Desperate to fill his shoes, she'd fell into the same trap.
In a determined air, the dragon knight lifted her spear. "Never again, I swear it. Let us return to Burmecia post-haste. There is much work to be done…including keeping my winning streak." Not waiting for a reply, she trotted in direction of Burmecia.
A groan, from behind her. "I should have known that win was a fake! Freya, you're incorrigible."
"So I've been told."
With little effort, the three burmecian males caught up to Freya. As Dan muttered under his breath Doyle and Gray exchanged smiles while Freya whistled innocently. The four made their way to the West Gate eager to return to the soothing rain and good fellowship.