Chapter 75: Valor

It was a strange end to Varek's life. Neither he nor Renault thought his funeral would be attended by many people, but nearly all of Dragon's Heaven had been there.

Not that it should have been all that surprising. Varek, as he seemed to always have, had won over the hearts of pretty much all the townspeople during his stay here. Renault had tried to give a eulogy worthy of the man's memory, and judging by the reactions of his audience, he had pretty well succeeded. Still, he thought no eulogy, no matter how eloquent, could truly do justice to the man who had been the best friend he'd ever known since Braddock.

Prayer was the best he could do. Everyone was gone, Varek's coffin had been lowered into the ground, and there was no-one in the graveyard except Renault. He had presided over the funeral, and already performed the rituals, sprinkling water over Varek's body and reading from the Journey, and he had already prayed at Varek's bedside just when he'd passed, but it still didn't feel like it was enough. So, alone, under a clear blue sky, he knelt down before the grave, promising his friend that he would never forget what he had been taught, and hoping the Saint would guide him towards his just reward in God's country.

Not long after he started, however, his reverie was interrupted by another friend.

"Hey, Renault. Uh…Can I talk to you about something? If you'd rather not, I understand, and it can wait…"

Renault stood up and looked behind him. It was Shaf.

"…Thank you for your concern, but it is alright. What do you wish to discuss?"

"Varek left a will…"

Renault smiled, though it was not a large one—his never were. "I know. He didn't have much, but he wanted what few belongings he owned donated to charity. I have no problems with that, of course."

"I'm glad to hear it, but there are a few things he wanted to leave to you as well." Shaf reached into his pocket and held something out to Renault. It was…not a necklace, but a rosary. The ostentatious jeweled one that was the only luxurious item Varek kept.

"It was his favorite, and he meant it as a memento for you, I think."

"Varek…" Renault took the rosary, and grasped it to his chest. "…Thank you. If it is his will, then I'll treasure this."

Shaf then reached for his backpack and took out a book. "His Divine tome, as well. Now that he's gone, he didn't want to leave you without protection."

"Of course."

"So…" Shaf scratched his head. "Well…again, sorry if you're still in mourning and I shouldn't ask stuff like this, but…what are you going to do now?"

"Eh?" Renault blinked. He honestly hadn't given any thought to that, so preoccupied had he been with Varek's death.

"Well…you've finished your translation and everything, haven't you? Now that Varek's gone, do you think you might stay here?" Shaf smiled. "I always had you two pegged as wanderers, but if you want to settle down, I think most of the people here would appreciate it."

"Perhaps, perhaps not. I'll have to give it some thought, but don't get your hopes up."

Shaf understood, and Renault did as he promised. He remained in Dragon's Heaven for another week, thinking about all he had seen, and all that had happened to him.

He had been traveling with Varek for all these years in order to repent for his crimes and honor Braddock's name. Now that the hermit was gone, what could he do—or, more accurately, what should he do? Continue his wandering in order to help as many people as he could? That made sense, but where would he go? With Varek, his travels were guided by their larger quest, or at least the hermit's good judgement. With Varek gone, Renault had no idea of where to go next. It occurred to him that despite his advanced rank in the Eliminean hierarchy, he still had a very great deal to learn indeed.

So he continued to pray—this time for guidance. He was unsure if anyone was listening to him, and received nothing for a week, but at the end of 7 days, he finally got an answer, though it was as vague and esoteric as he had come to expect.

It had come to him, as they usually did, in the form of a dream. Not even a dream, really—just a vague, half-heard intimation as he had fallen asleep. Before drifting off, he thought he heard a voice—Braddock's voice. It said, "Valor…Valor…Go to Valor…"

In the morning, he sought out Shaf. "Have you ever heard of a place called Valor?"

"Valor?" The man scratched his chin. "That's just bravery—wait, you mean a place? I'm not…wait. I think I heard someone talking about an island to the south with that name. Why?"

"That will be my next destination. Thank you, Shaf."

"Your next destin—you're leaving? Just like that?"

Renault nodded. "I've enjoyed my time here, but…" he thought of how best to put it. "I must go where Elimine guides me. And I believe the Lord has inspired me to go to Valor. It is a…pilgrimage, I suppose."

Shaf sighed. "I'll be honest, I didn't wanna hear that, but I knew it was coming. Well, at least we got to know you and Varek. Thanks for everything, Renault. I mean that. I'm glad you two came here, and I'm honored to call you friends."

"The feeling is mutual."

"Just don't leave without saying goodbye to everyone else, okay?"

"…Very well."

"Oh, and one more thing. Follow me."

Shaf took him to the former Dragusta manor. Taking an elaborate key from his belt, he opened the door to an undamaged annex in the east wing of the building. After disappearing inside for a few moments, he returned with a batch of treasures that almost made Renault's eyes pop out of his head.

"I want you to have these."

The Bishop held up his hands and refused. "No. No. There's no way I could possibly…"

"Really, I insist. With Juge and Iris gone, there's nobody here who could really use these anyways, and it'd be a waste to just keep them moldering in storage forever. If you can't think of it as repayment for all you and Varek have done for us, think of it as an investment in God's work, if you're really wandering around Elibe for that purpose."

The gifts Renault were attempting to refuse consisted of a Light Rune, a Fortify staff, and 10,000 gold pieces. The Fortify staff was by far the most valuable. He'd heard of the devices, and had enough experience with staves to know how to use them, but they were capable of healing a small army all at once, depending on their user's magical power.

"I…" Renault sighed. "If you'll truly brook no argument…I accept. I can only hope I use these for good…at least as much as I can."

"If I had any doubt about that, I wouldn't be giving 'em to you. Now let's head to the guild tavern so you can say your goodbyes!"

-x-

Badon had changed little since he'd been here last, though Renault wasn't sure if that was due to the sort span of time it'd been since his last visit, or because port towns in general didn't seem to change much.

It was still noisy, still smelly, and still filled with raucous crowds from all over Elibe. Such a place had its own charms, but certainly none for someone seeking a tranquil place to pray, contemplate, and meditate.

He thus set about finding someone to take him to Valor as quickly as possible. He didn't think it would be easy, of course; Valor was not called "The Dread Isle" for nothing. Though it wasn't particularly far from the southern coast of Lycia, its waters were among the most dangerous and chaotic in all of Elibe. They twisted and turned with seemingly no predictability; if they appeared calm one moment they could just as easily turn into a maelstrom the next. Making things worse were the multitude of sharp, jagged rocks jutting out of the sea all around the island like a small army waiting to defend it, topped off by a shroud of fog hanging over the whole area which made it nearly impossible to see. It was therefore a death sentence for all but the most experienced of sailors, and such men were even less inclined to keep anywhere near Valor because of the terrifying stories surrounding the place. Some said a dead army floated across that part of the ocean, waiting to draw sailors down to a watery grave with them, while others thought Valor was the home of a vicious tribe of demons just waiting for an opportunity to escape and wreak havoc across Elibe.

Renault doubted the veracity of those ghost stories, but he had no reason to doubt reports of the treacherous seaways leading to the island. Even so, if God had truly sent him that dream, he had no choice but to obey its command. As dangerous as the voyage might be, surely at least one sailor in Badon would be adventurous, greedy, desperate, or just plain crazy enough to take him south.

Fortunately—perhaps because God truly did want him to go there, or perhaps because he was just plain lucky—he found his benefactor scarcely a day after he'd arrived at the port. A very skilled sailor and his crew had found themselves in debt to some shady characters in Bern and were trying to get as much money as they could as quickly as possible. When Renault approached him, he was initially horrified at the prospect of heading to that nightmarish place. But the 10,000 gold Renault offered would easily clear his debt, and the collectors would kill him and his entire family if he couldn't deliver, so he accepted Renault's request, however reluctantly.

The actual trip to Valor was, surprisingly, relatively uneventful. The seas were as bad as everyone had said, and there certainly were some very close calls—the small schooner came within a hair's breadth of impaling itself on a jagged outcropping of rock, and Renault had to rescue a crew member from being tossed overboard when the ship hit some particularly rough currents. Still, at the very least they didn't see any ghosts or demons, and they passed through a fog bank just in time to avoid shipwrecking themselves on a cliff and instead cast anchor near a nice little beach.

The captain and his crew breathed a heavy sigh of relief as Renault debarked. "Damn terrible waters," he spat. "Well, I guess Elimine must've been watching out for us after all, lest we wouldn't have made it here in the first place!" He tossed the heavy pouch of money containing Renault's payment in the air and caught it with satisfaction. "Suppose she's looking out for me, too, now that I can get the debt collectors off my back. I'm thankful to you, Your Excellency, but you'll understand if I don't want to make a trip like this ever again, no matter how much money's in it!"

"Of course. I thank you, and your men as well. I would never have been able to make it here were it not for your skills."

"Aye. Well, how long do you plan on staying? The boys and I can wait for a few days, but no more. Even if we've not seen anything yet, I don't plan on pushin' my luck when it comes to the ghost stories I've heard about this place."

"…I don't know. Probably a long time." Renault turned and began heading away. "You can leave me here. Thank you again for your help."

"Leave you here? W-wait! I can't just leave a Bishop…"

"It's fine. I know what I'm doing here."

And with those words, Renault disappeared into the mist.

-x-

Valor wasn't especially beautiful, but it was quiet. More than quiet, really—nearly silent. That alone would have made it one of the most appealing spots Renault had ever encountered, at least after everything that had happened to him.

There weren't even any birds on this silent isle. That made Renault a little sad—he may have spurned human company for the moment, but he still loved the animals as much as he ever did. But then again, even their absence may have been a blessing in its own way. Absolutely nothing to distract him from his contemplation and his prayers.

And he very much needed both. He had been here for a week and not yet received any answers or any indication that he was in the right place, whether or not it was God or the spirit of Braddock who wanted him here. He begged God for guidance every night before going to sleep, asking for some revelation a hundred times, counted by the jeweled beads of Varek's rosary running through his fingers. But there were no dreams, and the voices were silent, now. All he did was wander aimlessly through the deserted island.

Deserted, but not empty. Indeed, the strange things he found were the only evidence he had to conclude he was in the right place.

There was little unusual about the terrain itself. While there were no animals, there were many trees and much green grass. Very many trees, in fact—Renault's sense of direction was good enough to tell him he'd been heading steadily north, but at any time he easily could have gotten very lost amidst forests that seemed more like deep lakes of trees. They were gangly, twisted things, nowhere near as thick and hearty as the oaks, elms, and evergreens were on the mainland, but while Renault wasn't sure what species they were, they at least seemed healthy—another piece of evidence against the proposition that Valor was infested by demons.

It was far more likely it had been inhabited by Dragons.

He came across the first temple about a day after he'd been dropped off. He would have noticed the massive thing much sooner, but the thick fog which never seemed to let up at any time on Valor hid it from view. He wasn't as awestruck as other travelers might have been, since he'd seen something similar before. It was at the top of a mountain in the Western Isles, where the Phoenix nested. The temple here was in pretty much the same shape: A gigantic ziggurat (a tiered rather than triangular pyramid) with a humongous entrance capable of allowing Dragons entry.

There was no inscription on the huge edifice, so Renault poked his head in cautiously. He knew it was unlikely that anything still remained here, but he also knew caution never hurt. In this case, though, it proved unnecessary, for the temple was as still and quiet as a tomb. And a temple it was—though there were no inscriptions on the outside of the building, there was one on the titanic altar in the center of the ziggurat, and that inscription was, from what Renault read, a hymn to the glory of the Draconic goddess Naga.

Beyond that, however, there was nothing at all. No hidden treasures, no long-forgotten texts, no hidden chambers that Renault could find. There were clearly mysteries here, on this island humans had forgotten but the dragons had once owned, but Renault wasn't sure if his purpose was to unravel those mysteries or do something else. So he decided to rest there for the night, setting up camp by reading from his trusty copy of Elimine's Journey before darkness fell and he lay down to sleep.

His sleep on the floor of the ancient Dragon temple went undisturbed, by either any outside force or his own dreams. But not long after he woke, he would find the purpose he sought.

-x-

The moment he set foot into these particular ruins, Renault knew there was something different about them.

The architecture was the most obvious thing. All the other temples he'd passed by were obviously made by Dragons; their towering ceilings and gigantic gateways designed to accommodate the massive girth of the great beasts. This one, however, was plainly made for human habitation.

He came across it just a couple of days after leaving the Draconic temple, and it was hidden within the depths of another deep forest he was passing aimlessly through. The structures of the small complex were made of grey stone that, even as weathered as it was by the centuries, seemed too perfectly cut and raised in such a remote location that Renault doubted it had been crafted by hand rather than magic. He knew magicians like Nergal were capable of erecting such structures, and his suspicions were confirmed when he took a better look at it.

The whole thing was a dwelling not dissimilar to the one he'd used when working with Nergal. It was composed of two buildings. The southern one was a rectangular storage unit, completely empty now. Above it was a larger living area attached to a library. Much of the stone had been eroded and much of it had been overtaken by weeds and greenery, but Renault could yet make out the remnants of an ancient, Scouring-era hearth, as well as bookshelves lining the walls…

Not all of which were empty.

If Renault had been a dark magician, this place would have been a treasure trove. In the room next to the living area with the hearth there were a few powerful, exotic Dark tomes, such as Fenrir and Eclipse. There were also several esoteric, academic texts on the functioning of Dark magic written by both human and Dragon scholars. Even though he'd never studied the subject professionally, Renault knew these books were completely unknown to the rest of Elibe, and would represent a significant contribution to the pursuit of knowledge if their contents were disseminated.

Even that, however, paled in comparison to what lay ahead.

Just beside the sorcerer's main study (a small room in the northeast containing an elaborate though long-ruined thronelike chair; it also contained a stairwell leading to a basement full of empty barrels—another storage) was another long, rectangular room. It led to another library, and unlike the one upstairs, the bookshelves of this one were completely packed. Most were written in High Imperial, many in Draconic, and the remaining quarter in the fell language of Shadetongue. They encompassed all sorts of subjects, from Dark magic to Anima to cooking and botany and even child care. Whoever had once owned this place certainly had a wide variety of interests—and very esoteric ones, judging by the portrait hanging at the far wall.

It was a painting not unlike the sort he had seen in Castle Caerleon; Landez's portrait of the Autonomous Company. The coloring was actually faded and indistinct; either time had not been kind to it or the civilization of the Scouring was actually less advanced than today's in terms of painting, at least. But what it depicted was incredibly rare indeed.

It was a man and dragon. The man seemed familiar to Renault, somehow, but his features were too indistinct to make any firm connections. The dragon, on the other hand, while not a large one (only twice the man's size) was clearly an Ice dragon. Curiously, the two were not fighting. Instead, the man was caressing the Dragon's scaly head, as if he were in love with it.

This was not the strangest thing Renault had ever seen. He had spent time in Arcadia, where man and Dragon lived together in peace, and even cross-bred fairly regularly. But he also thought it was the only place on Elibe where that could happen. Here, however, if this painting showed something that had actually happened, a man (perhaps the dark sorcerer who lived here) and a Dragon had actually managed to find love amongst an island full of Dragons.

Perhaps the tolerance Arcadia had displayed was something not entirely impossible to replicate.

Alas, Renault would have little time to ponder this thought. He was able to spend a few days in the library poring through the many books, but one afternoon, he heard a commotion coming from the outside.

He could only thank God—or his good fortune, considering his continued lack of certainty in the veracity of his faith—that they'd not come upon him while he was sleeping. While he was reading one of the books—a Scouring-era atlas of what would eventually be Ilia, by the looks of it—he heard voices coming from outside the room. He immediately shut the book, returned it to where it had been on the shelf, and snuck up to the doorway, peering through where he had left it open a crack.

Standing in the grassy part of the ruins (what had once been the living area) were five men, all armed. From their rough language to the bandanas covering their faces, Renault surmised they were bandits, thieves, or assassins. The subject of their conversation further convinced him they were up to no good.

"Geez, what a creepy damn place," moaned an ugly man with an Iron Sword strapped to his hip. "Why th' hell did they send us over here? Nothin' around but these weirdo ruins. No treasure, no plunder, not even no women! Just a bunch of old books. I didn't join the Fang for this!"

His companions laughed. "Yeah, well, the Shrike says those books might come in handy. I'm just glad they magiced us over here instead of taking a ship—we'd probably be on the bottom of the ocean otherwise! If those books'll help 'em do more stuff like that, this trip ain't so bad. Besides, you know what happens to people who disobey orders."

The first man shuddered. "Don't remind me!"

"Then shut yer trap and get back to work. We're supposed to scout this area an' tell the commanders what it's good for. I smell dark magic around here…maybe the Shrike would like this place. Might also be a good spot fer an ambush. Let's see what else we can find!"

Renault knew it would be a bad idea to let this "Fang," whatever it was, know he was here. There was almost certainly nothing good he could take from them, and it could cause a lot of trouble if they found him. While he wagered he could defend himself if necessary—despite his weak magical abilities, he had a strong tome and these thieves did not look at all powerful themselves—he also had not lived for over three centuries by taking foolish risks. Who knew what sort of organization the Black Fang was and who else it might send here if these men failed to report back? Lastly, the whole reason he had come here was to find peace and tranquility. More senseless violence would have completely thwarted that purpose, and Varek wouldn't have wanted him to start fighting again after he'd finally found a peaceful path.

Thus, Renault waited for his chance, and then took it. The men stood in the living area for a few minutes longer, talking and joking, before finally getting back to work. They split into two groups; one heading to the southern storage area and the other heading north. Renault feared they'd enter his little library first and prepared to hide, but fortunately they decided instead to raid the former study and basement storage. Renault, therefore, could quietly and easily slip away, out of the ruins and into the mists of Valor, with none of his new visitors—not even that "Shrike"—any wiser.

-x-

As good fortune would have it, whoever these masked interlopers were, they weren't exactly hawk-eyed and they didn't have much interest in examining the island all that heavily. They were apparently convinced it was completely deserted, and while Renault almost bumped into a couple of their patrols, the fog and thick trees allowed him to elude any detection. He made his way back to the temple of Naga he'd passed earlier, finding to his relief that it was still empty and ignored. There, he decided to wait, hoping that whoever these strange men were would leave soon enough.

Alas, he would be disappointed—and very much so.

Another week after he'd started hiding out at the abandoned temple, he heard the clamor of battle outside. Sighing, he raised himself from his makeshift bed on the floor and cautiously advanced towards the great entrance of the building, carefully hiding behind one of the pillars to ensure he wasn't seen.

There were shouts, screams, and the distinctive clang of steel on steel, punctuated occasionally by the loud crack of thunder, despite the fact that it was a completely clear day—Bolting spells.

The actual combatants were a very motley lot. On one side was the Black Fang, who seemed to consist primarily of poorly armed and trained thugs, the sort Renault had slaughtered by the dozens as a mercenary. Their opponents, on the other hand, were cut of very different cloth. They were such a diverse group that Renault at first thought they were separate forces. He saw a pair of Pegasus Knights flitting through the sky, a Monk (at least Renault assumed so from the person's garb—they had long blonde hair and seemed beautiful enough to be a woman) and a pink-haired Cleric belonging to his own faith, as well as a heavily armored Knight and several Cavaliers whose armors denoted them as Ostian and Lycian, respectively. The army seemed to move in formation to protect its leaders, and when the battle neared his location Renault could make them out. There were three: A handsome, red-haired man whose fine livery and distinctive Rapier marked him as a noble of Pherae, a tall blue-haired warrior who reminded Renault of Braddock—both because of his handsome face and the Ostian Wolf Beil he wielded, and lastly, a beautiful green-haired woman who, Renault was surprised to note, wielded her sword the same way Hassar had, all those years ago.

Despite their diversity, this new force was much better trained than the Black Fang, and they were making short work of the Black Fang. Their skill meant they were likely professionals rather than hired thugs; this combined with the fact that they were led by actual, legitimate nobles made Renault think their intentions were less malevolent than those of their foes.

Even so, he couldn't be entirely sure, and in any case, there were many reasons not to get involved—his weak magical abilities would make him more a hindrance than help at this point, and he still had no wish to get involved in any sort of battle, even if on the right side. He thus retreated back into the depths of the temple, hoping it would all pass him by.

It didn't—at least not entirely.

Renault sighed inwardly when he heard the sound of steps violating his sanctuary. He readied his grip on his Divine tome…but then relaxed it when he saw who his visitor was.

It wasn't one of the Black Fang thugs. It was, rather, a young woman who didn't seem at all threatening. She had red hair and blue eyes, leading Renault to think she was related to the rapier-wielding leader, or at least from Lycia as he was, and dressed in modest but comfortable green clothing which told him she was a traveling noble. The white feather in her hair and the Mend staff she held told him she was a Troubadour, like Yulia had been, so long ago.

She was tired and anxious, and was almost certainly looking for a place to rest from the raging battle. She looked like she both needed and deserved his help, so he decided to make himself known, stepping out from the shadows.

She gasped and took a step back when she saw him. "Who is it? What are you doing there?!"

Renault smiled as reassuringly as he could and raised his empty hands. "I'm Renault. I'm on a pilgrimage." That was as good a word as any to describe his purpose here, he supposed.

She looked at his holy vestments, and a blush spread across her face as she realized how rude she had been. "Oh! A Bishop? I…please, forgive my rudeness."

"What are you doing here? You don't appear to be with the black-robed group I saw earlier."

"No, we are here to fight them." She paused, and there was concern in her eyes. "…This is a battleground. Please, Your Excellency, stay here, and stay safe. I'll ensure that the enemy does not reach this place."

You wouldn't be able to do much, Renault thought to himself—Troubadours used only healing magic and could cast no offensive spells. He knew it would do no good to point that out, though, and also knew the girl would not likely shy away from battle simply on the advice of a strange bishop she'd only just met.

Again, he sighed. "I'm sure I cannot convince you to lay down your arms. That being the case, I give you this."

He reached into his traveling pack and brought out the icon of Ashera that Cathyn had given him during his last trip to Ilia.

She looked at it curiously. "What is it?"

"This is an old relic. It depicts a different God than the one we worship, but it may bring you luck nonetheless. Please, take it. You need it more than I do."

"Sir, I…are you sure?"

Renault nodded. "It may well help you live longer. Even if you face the misery of defeat in combat, you may find another road if you but live."

She reached out for it, hesitantly, than grabbed it and cradled it to her chest. She could apparently sense the faint bit of magic on it, and appreciated what Renault had given her. "Th-Thank you."

Renault nodded. "Is there anything else you need? I do know some healing magic. If you're injured…"

She shook her head. "No, no. Please don't worry about me, Your Excellency, I am fine. I needed only a brief respite, and now that I've received that, I must rejoin my friends."

"Go, then. May you be watched over and protected in your venture."

"Thank you. And you as well, Your Excellency."

She waved goodbye to him, and he watched her follow her comrades into the mist. Then he returned to his hiding place in the temple, praying for her safety,

The battle did not last long after that. The sounds of swords and spells died away after an hour or so, and when Renault went outside to check, he saw the ground littered with the bodies of those black-robed villains. Thankfully, none of the woman's comrades seemed to be among them. Her army itself was nowhere in sight, not having lingered around the site of their victory. From their footprints, Renault surmised they were heading north, toward the strange sorcerer's study he had visited.

For a moment, he thought about following them, and perhaps warning them of what lay there. But then he thought better of it. Such a group would almost certainly be able to handle whatever this "Black Fang" could throw at them.

And in any case, he was quite certain they would meet again sooner rather than later, anyways.

::Linear Notes::

Not much to say for this chapter, my friends. Hmm…it's kinda short and not much happens, but it's a bit of a transition chapter. Much more will happen in the next one, I guarantee it! :D :D For now, tho, check this out. Remember the portrait of the Autonomous Company mentioned a couple of chapters ago? A friend of mine drew it for me! The pic is small cause tumblr, but I am SOOOO happy with it!

gunlord500 . tumblr . c 0 m / image / 119254094985