Chapter 18: Beginnings
"What else?" the Wise One asked. "This is a test. Let it be a lesson as well."
"You don't need to. At least, not like this."
"Alchemy was sealed for a reason, Ranma. Man tried to use it to meddle with things that should not be meddled with, and nearly destroyed themselves. To allow it to be unsealed, I must-"
"They'll do. We both know it. Don't lie to yourself about it."
"Why take such a risk?" the Wise One countered. "I am far from omniscient, and I cannot risk the fate of the world on a hunch unless there are no other options."
"And he is not a greater risk?" Ranma said, quirking an eyebrow and gesturing at the small, blue-haired form climbing Mount Aleph. From their position at the summit, Alex was easy to spot.
"Unavoidable, given my constraints. And I have, as you pointed out before, taken… precautions."
The world shuddered.
"Your plans leave something to be desired," Ranma drawled.
A red light dawned in the northwest.
"But I think it'll work out," he smiled, beginning to glow slightly. "Time for me to leave. What you do with blue is up to you."
In the time between light waves, the summit was vacated.
They called it Mercury, in part a reference to a half-remembered god, in part a reference to the liquid metal. It was the oceans, the rains, the lakes, the rivers. It was the blood of the world, and it was in the blood of all who lived on Weyard.
It was fluid. It was crystal. It quenched flames. It stored warmth. It was the cold of the end. It was the ender of thirst.
It was life.
It was death.
They called it Venus, in reference to the beauty and bounty of their world. It was the fields, the mountains, the valleys, the forests. It was the flesh of the world, and it was where all who lived on Weyard would eventually return, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
It was strong. It was malleable. It fed fires. It provided for those who lived on it. It crushed those beneath it. It grew dangerous and wild.
It was life.
It was death.
They called it Jupiter, for only gods could rule it and not be ruled by it. It was the clouds, the storms, the lightning, the breezes. It was the breath of the world, and all who lived beneath Weyard's sky breathed it.
It was fast. It was gossamer. It carried stories. It blew houses to pieces. It lifted birds' wings. It wore mountains dust.
It was life.
It was death.
They called it Mars, for it was the essence of war. It was the deserts, the volcanoes, the will o' wisps, the sparks. It was the light of the world, and all who lived beneath Weyard's sun and stars burned with it in their hearts.
It was uncontrolled. It was ablaze. It warmed the cold. It scorched the weak. It lit the night. It burned the world to cinders.
It was life.
It was death.
They called it 'alchemy.' The essence of all things.
They were wrong.
It was not alchemy. Alchemy was, as Daedelus once said, the science of the metaphysical. Alchemy was creation, alchemy was destruction. Alchemy, confusingly, was both the study and the practice of manipulating the world through combining the elements. But however you wanted to look at it, alchemy was controlled. It might not always be controlled well, but it always had purpose, direction. Focus.
The 'distilled essence of alchemy' was completely different.
Fire, not flame, but the essence of all that burns.
Water, not hydrogen dioxide, but the essence of things moist.
Wind, not air, but the essence of all that flies free.
Earth, not ground, but the essence of all things that endure and grow.
When they met upon the summit of Mount Aleph, the result was not alchemy. The result was the Golden Sun.
The result was power.
Purposeless. Uncontrolled. Formless. Unstable.
Pure golden light formed upon Mount Aleph.
The Golden Sun rose.
Pure power exploded across the sky.
And all the world could do nothing but watch and hope, as Weyard was cataclysmically changed.
Not everyone was there, though. One person in particular, still had a decision to make.
Ranma stared into the emptiness.
You have decided.
"Correct." The word was clinical, unemotional.
What is your choice?
Ranma blinked in surprise.
"Don't you already know?"
Yes. But what is important here is that you are at peace with your decision. If you cannot say it, you are not ready.
"I'll do it of course. There is no reason for me not to, save my own doubts."
Are you certain? Doubts are important also. You should not dismiss them. If you need time to resolve them, you will be given it.
"If I had no doubts," Ranma stated bluntly, "I would not be trustworthy. All of my current problems come from people being too assured of their own paths. As long as I continue to second-guess myself, I'll at least be less likely to screw up like they did."
A good response. Very well. To take up your duty, you need do only one thing.
The nothingness changed. Ranma stood in a clearing in a forest, a scene perfect in its existence. Every leaf, every blade of grass, every twig fit perfectly in its place. A blue sky with patches of clouds could be seen in places through the canopy of the forest, light being tinted green and gold as it drifted through the leaves. The clearing itself was small, a patch of openness not overhung by the trees only a few yards across.
In the middle of the clearing was a large stone, rugged and weathered, a stone that looked as old as time.
In the stone was a sword, embedded almost to the hilt. It was not a small blade by any means, being almost half a foot wide at the base and, although its pedestal rose no higher than Ranma's waist, the sword gave Ranma the impression that it was almost as tall as him.
"Not what I expected," Ranma admitted. "I honestly thought that you would do something along the lines of painfully shoving the sum total of all knowledge into my brain. Why do it like this?"
Finality. Importance. The weight of your words when you accepted was felt, but you are a warrior, regardless of whatever other paths you have ventured through. Symbolism is important, especially in such a place as this. This is to… ease the transition. You will not walk out of here with a sword, you will walk out of here with a duty. You are a fighter. This seemed… appropriate.
"Why the sword in the stone? And why is it so large? I was under the impression that Arthur drew this blade when he was little more than a kid."
Legends rarely match up to reality. In many ways, the truth of the man known as Arthur is more impressive, if less epic, than the tale. He was no one special, no wizards taught him, no gods took particular note of his birth. He was short, rather ugly, and only controlled a small region instead of a whole country. But he was strong. He was talented. He was a good leader, at least for the barbarians he led. And when his land was attacked, he fought back, wielding a sword as large as himself. And he won. He became a legend. What you see now is the legend of his beginning.
Ranma walked up to the stone, but did not grasp the sword.
"It isn't Excalibur. That one was in a lake. Which sword is this?"
Excalibur is the sword of promised victory. This is Caliburn, the sword that selects the king. It is a blade of burden, responsibility, and power.
"And it has two edges of course."
Yes. Although only the swordsmen of Asia ever truly appreciated the distinction, preferring single-edged blades, it indeed has two edges. It is not 'real' as you would understand it, and it will not exist once you leave this construct. But, once drawn, it indeed cuts both ways.
"Most things do. Blades. Love. Hope. Fear. Justice. Power. Vengeance. Ideas. Dreams."
One hand curled around Caliburn's handle. Another joined it.
"They can hurt. They can cut both ways. But that's life. And you know, as much as it hurts, I don't think I'd have it any other way."
The air chimed softly with the low ringing of metal and stone.
Alex groaned, and futilely tried to move, to escape the deathtrap that the mountain had become. The world shuddered around him, reacting violently to the sudden reemergence of power. If he did not move, then he, like this mountain, would be swallowed by the earth. But his whole body burned with the agonyof exhaustion, every twitch sending-
-spears of pain into whatever region of his form that dared to heed his mind's pleas. The ground rumbled and shook, but, being splayed on his back already, there was little more it could-
-do to him. For a moment, he wondered if this could have been avoided, if he could have trusted someone, anyone, with the truth-
-but he was alone now, and that was that. He had no friends or allies with him to carry him from this place. Anyone could have done that if he had thought to bring them, but now nobody was here to save him when he needed it most. If he could have mustered the energy, he would have snorted and laughed bitterly.
To save him! At the moment of his triumph, he needed someone to save him! Damn that rock, that infuriating hunk of inorganic sentience! And that dupe, Isaac…
…no, he would not fool himself in such a petty thought. Credit where it was due. Isaac was nothing more than a pawn, and had done nothing to impede him effectively. It was the Wise One who had denied him infinite power, and… what?
A shadow fell across Alex's face.
"You don't look so good," he heard a concerned feminine voice say. "Let's get you back on your feet."
A cool wave of healing energies flowed over him. He basked in the sensations, but all too soon the balming feeling was interrupted by a lurch of motion as the woman hefted him into a sitting position against one of the larger pieces of rubble.
She was fuzzy to his bleary eyes, and with the sun at her back the most he could make out of her features was her flame-colored hair.
"So why did you do something so stupid? What would have been accomplished by any of those flagrant wastes of power had you actually succeeded?"
"You… saw?" Alex managed to croak out, his voice starting to return.
"And attacking the Wise One to prove your strength? Proving your power through violence is almost always a sign of insecurity, but to try to take on a philosopher's stone with no knowledge of its capabilities? Hubris seems to be your flaw."
"…flaw? I am-"
"Going to be lucky if it isn't a fatal flaw at this rate."
Alex grit his teeth and glared, but could not muster enough anger to seethe at his rescuer.
"What were you trying to accomplish, anyway?"
"…Power. Ultimate power. I should have been as a god!" Alex burst out angrily, all of his composure gone. He was forced to take a pained breath as his sudden exhalation hurt his bruised ribs. He continued, with less force although with no less feeling. "I should have been able to destroy with a word, create with a thought, but that accursed floating rock ruined it all at the beginning and I never even knew! The blasted Wise One stole it right from under my nose, and then just sat back and laughed at my efforts!"
"And why did you want that power?"
"…Isn't power reason enough?" Alex countered eventually, his eyes averted.
The healer smiled, and shook her head. Gesturing around the devastated landscape, she let the environs give the answer.
"Without a purpose, you will not accomplish anything. Unless you have something to do with power, power is useless. So… what is it that you wish for? To rule the world? To be worshipped as a god? To be revered as a mighty protector? To live forever? To find a 'happy ending'?"
"Why would I tell you?"
"Fair enough. As long as you know the answer, that is good enough. I don't need to know where you are going. If you know your own path, I will be satisfied with that."
Alex gritted his teeth.
"It seems that you still have a ways to go before you are ready for the whole picture. That's okay. You have plenty of time, after all. If you are lucky and skilled and careful enough, you might have all eternity. I wonder, though, will you tire of forever? And will you be able to comprehend this world?"
"What? What are you blathering about? I already understand! How do you think that I alone came to be here? No others could comprehend what would occur when the lighthouses were lit, not even that old scholar, Kraden. I was the only one who understood what it meant, what opportunity the Golden Sun would provide! I understand far better than you, who stood back and passed up on the opportunity!"
"It took me time, too, to get past such things. Although, I do hope I was never so blindly power-hungry. It takes time to understand, and most people die before they get it, most immortals, even. That's life."
"Who are you?"
"You won't remember this, but if it makes you happy I suppose I could tell you."
"What do you mean, I won't remember?"
"You aren't mature enough to play nicely with others, so you don't get to meet the family yet," the healer sighed. "And that means I make you forget. Anyway, I'm Ranma.
"Sorry about this."