Crossing the Bridge
Such a tedious gathering this was…
Countess Camilla Rosa Dragora sat upon her sumptuous white throne, more a great chair cushioned in white vinyl, its plush high back ending six feet above her head.
She wore an elaborate white and red dress with wide skirts and many layers of silk petticoats, the puffy sleeves dagged with red and white stripes. In truth, it was a mockery of the white robes of the Order of the White Staff, whom Camilla secretly hated with a passion.
Under her rule, the white mages had been as marginalized as they could be in western Brikkensburg, this part of the city her fiefdom, whereas her noble counterpart Morticai ruled the eastern half across the River Rime. The priests and priestesses of the Order were very popular with the people and so Camilla had not been able to completely run them out lest she risk causing more overt strife than was her mandate by her master.
The woman that ruled this side of the darkened city sat as rod straight as she could upon her throne, her heart-shaped face utterly flawless and heavily powdered in order to hide just how deathly pale she was, her lips brightly red from a liberally applied cosmetic. Despite the powders and paints heavily applied, her beauty was unquestionable, her long platinum hair flowing like a shining silver river down over her shoulders.
And yet her large scarlet eyes held impatience and irritation as she tapped her gilded scepter in one hand where she sat upon the dais that overlooked her throne room. Guards in fully concealing suits of black plate-and-mail stood at points about the walls, utterly still and seeming like statues more than living guardians—not living at all, Camilla knew—but the rest of the people in the chamber had clumped in a mob just at the foot of her dais; an obnoxious mob.
It was long-standing tradition that anyone Brikkensburg had the right to petition the Count or Countess. Morticai seemed able to suffer through it with a grace that Camilla could not countenance. Why did Lichtenstein not just rule the people overtly, why did he make Lady Rosa Dragora endure the petty merchants and smelly tanners, the common rabble always so base and unrefined? The Great Unwashed, she called them, though only to herself.
Each and every day was given over to the petitioners or elaborate ceremonies or endless council meetings with city officials; ministers of trade, sanitation and more… the list went on and on. The countess had barely any time for herself and the strain it put on her had become a type of madness that was causing her to crack.
Indeed, the countess suddenly shot up from her throne. "Enough!" she shrieked, and the mob below suddenly froze at the sound of her sudden outburst.
Quickly, but with difficulty, the woman forced composure. "I am calling a recess to the petitioning for now. I need two hours to myself and then I shall reconvene this… gathering."
Her Captain-at-Arms, a black-armored figure that was the only one still living, came half way up the dais, lifting the visor of his dark helm to reveal a stunningly handsome face that alleviated the countess's frustration somewhat. She did so love beautiful things, but she cut him off anyway. "Yes, Cecil, I know it breaks with tradition to quit the petitions until noon, as if there is any sun in this cursed country to tell the time anyhow," though she was secretly grateful for the perpetually darkened skies as the sun was her bane, but still, everything angered her at the moment. "Two hours is not overmuch, my faithful knight, and then I will be back to listen to the… concerns… of the people."
With a last final glare at the now bewildered mob, she strode off to the side, coming down the dais as black-armored guards moved immediately to form a protective ring around her. Cecil led her entourage, the knight moving with a fluid grace that spoke of a refined and deadly power.
Still, her ring of guards was stopped even before she got to the grand double doors that led to her private wing in the palace. Another group of petitioners was there, a hunched old fellow in filthy brown robes having the actual audacity to reach for Camilla's sleeve.
The countess immediately twitched her arm away in contempt as she looked into the lumpy misshapen face of a grotesque old man with long greasy hair. "A moment of your time, Great Mistress," he asked in a creaky old voice.
Camilla snarled with disgust and contempt, "Away with this filth, away with them all!"
Her guards acted without hesitation, lowering their halberds crosswise and pushing the rabble back none too gently. The countess lifted her chin with a sneer and continued on.
More guards opened the great doors and Camilla strode in, the wide dragging skirts of her dress not slowing her at all despite that they would hinder a normal woman considerably. When the great doors were shut behind her the countess stopped and screeched in pure frustration. "How much more of this pathetic dribble can I stand? I am the Countess Camilla Rosa Dragora, the White Queen, not some petty bureaucrat to be constantly accosted by the filthy rabble!"
She whirled toward her dark knight: "Cecil, that bedraggled old freak almost touched me with its grubby paw—I need a bath and I need one now!"
The knight hesitated. "My lady, it is highly unseemly to break with tradition in such an abrupt way, the courtesies you should observe before you…"
With a full-armed slap that staggered the knight sideways, Camilla jabbed a pale finger at her captain. "To hellfire with the courtesies, Cecil, I rule these people, they should show courtesy to me, not the other way around! Now, I will have my bath so get the servants on it, and I will have two attendants in the chamber to wash me down, a boy and a girl, and make certain they are both gorgeous!"
The knight recovered quickly and did not hesitate again. "As you wish, Lady Rosa Dragora," and he went off to fulfill his duty. Camilla was barely satisfied with his quick compliance. Arcing her slender fingers into claws, she wanted so badly to rend a mortal apart and gorge on its blood, her scarlet eyes suddenly glowing in the dim light of her private hall.
With another snarl, she stood straight and glided her way passed a pair of smaller doors into her private bath chamber. It was a somewhat squat but very tall chamber, the floor tiles alternating white and black. Dark wood was everywhere, in the wall paneling, the cornices, and even the furniture in the form of a half dozen large wardrobes that lined the walls. Her palace being situated upon a hill, she was quite high up, able to overlook a great swathe of the darkened city through several tall arched windows in the east wall.
Heavy leaden clouds covered the sky without as they had for decades now, yet there was barely any wind. It was a strange hushed quietude that blanketed Brikkensburg and the surrounding lands for many leagues all the way to the great mountain range that marked the southern most expanse of this small nation.
It took nearly a full hour just for servants to get Camilla out of her dress and into a large white stone tub situated in the center of the chamber, which itself had taken a hundred servants twenty minutes to fill with water from porcelain vessels, a constant stream of them coming and going from the servant's entrance.
Finally, however, Camilla reclined in her tub, a fetching young boy and girl gently scrubbing down her limbs with soft sponges. The feeling was positively luxurious and she strongly considered doing nothing for the rest of the day but indulging in the pure bliss of her bath.
It began only five minutes after she was submerged, however, the feel of the pulse. Camilla had banished all others from the chamber but her two young attendants, and in such seclusion, she could hear the soft thrumming of their mortal vibrations. The beating of young hearts so filled with young blood, strong and quick, no doubt in fear of displeasing their mistress.
Camilla did not even try to fight the urge, crooking a finger at the young boy. He gulped timidly, hoping he had not failed in his duties, so innocent and pure, leaning over the rim of the tub as she urged him, exposing his lithe neck.
With long wet streaks of silvery hair flowing down her face, Camilla positively shuddered as her scarlet eyes glowed in the soft light of a dozen candles, her exquisite beauty marred by the viciousness of the bloodthirsty beast rising within her.
Her two canine teeth elongated as she arched closer to the boy's supple neck, hearing nothing but his living pulse thrum all around her, enamored of the warmth she was about to tap into.
"A moment of your time, Great Mistress," came a sudden creaky voice.
In an absolute fury, Camilla shot up in the tub, splashing water over the sides, her feral eyes locking on a small hunched figure in tattered brown robes standing just inside the cusp of her chamber doors.
A misshapen, withered old face gazed at her openly. Never had Camilla seen something so hideous as this ugly old thing, being utterly repulsed by it.
She gripped the lip of the stone tub hard enough to shatter it, her young attendants holding each other in utter terror at her open fury. "How dare you, you lumpy little beast, how did you get in here? Where are my guards—guards!" she screeched.
The withered old man shuffled forward a bit, unflinching in the face of her wrath. "I ask only for the merest hint of patience, Great Mistress, a silver of your time and no more. Is that really so much to ask?"
With a long low hiss, Camilla narrowed her vicious scarlet gaze at the withered old cur, her countenance utterly feral. "Who are you to ask anything of me, you repulsive little imp? I will have my guards chop you into chum and feed you to the kennelmaster's mutts!"
The ancient old fellow only shook his head. "Ah, Camilla, you disappoint me so… and I am not one to be disappointed." The countess suddenly shrank back when she noted the change in the old creature's voice. No longer creaky and nasal, it was now a resoundingly hollow emanation, as if spoken from some cavernous depth.
Camilla's eyes widened for a different reason as the thing continued to glide forward; its tattered brown robes now black and made of some indefinable material. Then the candles all suddenly went out, the snuffing of their meager light leaving everything in gray shadows, though even the deepest darkness would be too bright for the visage that grew before her.
A black roiling mist seemed to emanate from the old figure, its face now hidden in the depths of a cowl as it twisted and grew, transforming in utter silence. Indeed, it seemed other sound no longer existed, which made the hollow emanations from the creature deafeningly loud even though they were little more than a whisper. "You play my games poorly it seems, servant."
Camilla was immediately out of the tub, prostrating herself upon the tiles despite her nakedness. "My... My master… I apologize, I did not know it was you."
A deep and hollow anger shuddered through her. "You should have, servant, you should have. Only you and Morticai should know me as no other can besides my foolish siblings. Would you take my gifts for granted, Camilla, for I can relieve you of the youth and beauty you hold so dear. Your vanity has become vexing."
Camilla shuddered again, but kept her forehead pressed to the floor tiles. "Please no, Master, I… I will not complain again, I will fulfill my duties as I promised."
"You promised?" the creature said, now a great wraith that was darker than darkness. "Any fool can make a promise, Camilla. You made a covenant with me, and yet you have not the patience to carry it out. You are not on the mortal coil, my servant, how is that you are in such distress with the mundane when you know you will outlast it all? Have I not said that you will have your dead heart's desire when my plans come to fruition? Again, very disappointing… White Queen," he added mockingly.
Camilla knew better than to be offended, quashing her indignation. She did not have to feign the tremor in her voice. "What would you have of me, my Master?"
"What I should have had of you this whole time, Camilla… patience. Carry out your duties to the letter and end these depraved rituals I have heard rumor of all over this city. You have threatened everything I mean to do here and I will allow it no more. My own master has fallen and that means the mortal champions are on the move. They will seek the Crystals now and the one nearest to their homeland resides here in my kingdom."
The countess dared to look up. "The… the Light Warriors?"
There was a subtle twitch in the darkness, which Camilla thought might mean frustration, though none of that sounded in her master's cavernous voice. "They are young, even among mortals, but if they possessed power enough to destroy Garland than we cannot underestimate them. We must make certain everything is in place when they arrive here."
Camilla nodded. "Yes, Master, as you wish."
"No, Camilla, as it must be. Now clothe yourself and get back to your petitioners."
"Yes, my Lord."
And with that, the massive wraith imploded, all the bleak mists suddenly sucked down into a point of absolute nothingness—and the Lich was gone.
The dozen snuffed candles suddenly relit, and the countess immediately mourned the loss of her two young servants, for they had been withered to piles of ash on the floor, their rich youthful blood gone to waste. Ah well, there were more where they came from and Camilla had duties to attend to. Her two hours were up.
Even with the Chocobos, it had taken more than a month to get back to the northern cusp of Highland Kingdom, just northeast of the Temple of Fiends. It had taken so long, of course, because the Light Warriors had had to escort the caravan filled with artisans and building materials instead of going as far and as fast as they could everyday. They had also been slowed by having to fend off the occasional raid by worg-riding goblins. Luckily, many of the artisans on the wagons were also handy with bows and between that and the Light Warriors' prowess, each of the raiding parties had been swiftly driven off.
As well, just getting to this point on the rocky northern coast was only the beginning. The foreman, a rugged old carpenter named Clyde, had taken hours just to assess the extent of the damage to the bridge, which, as it turned out, wasn't in too bad of shape, though it would still take weeks to get the causeway to the point where it was decently traversable. Every one of the builders was curious as to why they needed to rebuild an old bridge that led to a small solitary island in the middle of nowhere. Valor replied that there was actually someone living there—in a cave—that the Light Warriors needed to talk to.
Clyde thought that was ridiculous, but the king had given the order and his guild had taken the commission, so he merely shrugged his shoulders and got his people to work.
As the days passed, Robin and Gantz wandered off on their own; in two separate directions, of course, while Sana-Lynn seemed to spend most of her time healing minor injuries among the craftsman. Clyde had commented on her healing, saying that even skilled builders had accidents fairly regularly and praising the priestess for her incredible usefulness. Valor had agreed wholeheartedly, but spent most of his time training, working his forms, banishing and summoning weapons to compile new techniques and tactics. He had actually asked if he could be of any use during the construction, but Clyde had quickly declined.
"No offense, my Lord, but even though you've got strength and endurance in spades, you just don't have the training. Besides, you aren't part of the guild, and it's against regulation to let non-guildsman work on a guild's commissioned project."
Valor thought it sort of foolish, but merely went along, having more time to work on his weapon switching combinations, able to banish and summon weapons in less than a blink now. He spent most of his time training just outside the worker's little camp, a hodgepodge of small canvas tents, many of them well worn and well-patched.
Days continued to pass, with the work moving steadily along until one blustery day while Valor worked his forms and Sana-Lynn sat off to the side reading a book on carpentry, Clyde suddenly ambled up. "Well, my Lord, Lady Priestess, the causeway is fit for simple foot traffic. I wouldn't trust anything heavier than a small cart on her though and the tresses are still in dire need of refurbishing, but she'll hold foot traffic up just fine. She would need way more than we've brought to get her fully rebuilt, but this will do for the commission."
Valor nodded. "You have fulfilled your part, Master Clyde. Give us a day to meet with the person on the island while you get your caravan ready to mobilize again and we will escort you back to Truce before we go our own way."
"Of course, my Lord, it'll be as you say."
Valor gave the beefy old fellow a clap on the shoulder before looking to Sana-Lynn. "Well, Sana, I guess now we just need to find the two wayward elements and we can be off."
Sana giggled at his description, before Gantz suddenly appeared out of thin air, folding his arms. "Who you calling 'wayward' you bloody blue blood? I've been here chaperoning you and Miss Priss almost the whole time… don't want you two lovebirds to get up to any 'antics'."
Valor forcibly stifled his indignation at Gantz accusation, though it was particularly hard where Sana was concerned. "I did not need you watching over me, wastrel, I do hope you've not stolen anything from these folk in the meantime!"
The thief just barked a laugh. "What is there to steal, woodworking tools and nails? No thanks. So anyway, are we gonna go see this loony old bat in the cave or what?"
Another worker suddenly ran up, waving his arms over his head. "Hey Clyde, and, uh, Light Warriors, your fire mage is already stalking her way across the causeway, growling about wasting so much time. She looked like she was ready to burn the sodding thing down before we could even finish it."
Sana-Lynn just shook her head. "Yep, that sounds like Robin alright." She then stood from the ground, brushed her self off, and took up her white staff. "Well, shall we try to catch up?"
Gantz just grinned. "Try to catch up? I'll be over there long before you slugs." And he was suddenly off in a blast of wind.
The white mage looked to Valor after he left. "Do you think Gantz has gotten faster?"
The warrior gave an irate nod. "Probably, he's more arrogant than ever. Regardless, let us be off so that we can be back heading south as soon as possible."
Sana agreed and Valor banished his twin battleaxes in flashes of light before he and the white mage moved off toward the partially finished bridge.
They passed clumps of workers that were already starting to gather their tools in boxes and pails, heading in lines back toward the parked wagons of the caravan. Some gave waves to Sana, no doubt for all her help healing their work-related injuries.
As they came to the causeway, which Valor figured wasn't quite fifty feet across, the warrior suddenly stopped, looking back south toward the great swath of the grasslands, back in the direction of Cornelia, though he couldn't see the White City from here.
Yes indeed, it had been quite an… adventure… he supposed he could say, though battle was certainly far more appropriate.
Feeling the breeze of a cool spring day, the Chosen of Earth suddenly wondered at all the new challenges the four Light Warriors would face in the days and weeks to come as they worked to track down the nearest of the Elemental Crystals.
As he stepped onto the causeway, he knew there would still be monsters and mayhem aplenty… and yet it mattered little. Many more challenges awaited the four Light Warriors, of that Valor had no doubt, but whatever lie ahead, he knew that swords and sorcery would aid them through their many trials... on this Final Fantasy…