Disclaimer: Star Ocean 3 does not belong to me, nor do I make any profit from writing this.

Cast-Iron Dreams

Prologue

Her world crashed when she pried the pod door open, winced at the sudden flare of light, and stared at a sky dull with sunlight and bright with snow.

Instinct prompted her to check her food and water supplies. Both would last her at least five days if she rationed economically. As for clothing, her body was grateful for the extra garments the pods always had on hand. Her tank top and knee-length jeans provided little warmth even inside the pod, where a sensor monitored the temperature and adjusted accordingly. Of course, since the pod's crash, all but the emergency exits were either shut down or destroyed. It was a miracle in itself that she was alive.

Fully opening the pod door, she winced again. Wind and snow whisked in every direction, lashing against her summer-kissed cheeks, her sun-soaked lips. Already her gloved hands were stiff, the beginnings of frost flaking the soft leather. Her eyes watered as she turned her head left and right, praying that a shape would emerge in this vicious, chillingly austere landscape. No features emerged, save the rugged line of mountain rock.

She breathed in deeply, fought the desire to cry. Instead she screamed her best friend's name, screamed it with a pitch uncannily like a banshee in the howling wind:

"Fayt!"

She screamed until her voice lost its pitch, became no more than the moaning of a forgotten apparition. Her fingers, garbed in fading brown, crumbled like sand upon the snow-mounded ground. The tears streaking her face only amplified the cold; but this, this she welcomed, for the heightened sensitivity bordered on numbness. And numbness was a friend entreated often in times of weakness.

For uncharted moments she kneeled in the snow, inhaling, freezing her cheeks with tears. Then the gloved hand swiped harshly at the girl's cheeks, and the cloth-bound feet pressed fully against the ground. In another moment she was standing, adjusting to the soft terrain. Her hands found the staff Fayt had handed her in battle and clutched it. A smile bordering bitterness and optimism found her lips.

"Come on, Sophia. Let's find out where we are."

She did not doubt that she was worlds away from her best friend.

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Albel the Wicked, mark this, was not bloodthirsty.

It only so happened that groups of soldiers at a time often attacked his brigade and he was at the forefront, dispatching them with the zeal any arrogant, skilled swordsman would possess. Add to that his orders from the King that, more often than not, required the decimation of entire armies, and the common notion was formed that Albel sought murder as the King sought peace.

Not so. Murder was simply the quickest solution to a deal of life's problems—problems in which man often played the dominant role.

So if inhabitants of Aquaria were to hear of Albel the Wicked encountering a girl collapsed in the snow, her clothes clearly indicating her not of Airyglyph origin, nearly all hands would show for him murdering her in her sleep. The remaining hands would be on him rousing the girl, admiring the way mindless terror would claim her eyes, and then proceeding to piece her dead.

Same for the Airyglyph inhabitants. Only they would say it with nauseous pride, because a ruthless warrior was a revered one.

In truth, in the truth witnessed by no one, rumored by no one, he left her there.

Even men with the epithet 'the Wicked' are not always heartless. In battle, perhaps. The cruel glint of the men's blade, the contortion of the men's lips as an enemy's eyes pleaded mercy, could be nothing but heartless. But, catch them in that moment before the battle, that moment when the swords are sheathed and no enemies crouch before them, eyes glinting as polished steel, and the Wicked men are not so wicked, after all.

It is only their incredible murdering capability that is Wicked. Not the man.

Not the man.

And so Albel, solitary, unwitnessed, dropped a katana near the girl, and left.

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Edit: Changed "never bloodthirsty" to "not bloodthirsty." Huge difference there. And "Aquios" to "Aquaria."

(2/19/07)