Prologue: Through The Eye Of Another
Beneath the surface of the world, but not far, the Demon Lord Barubary slept. And as he slept, though two of his great eyes were tightly closed and unseeing, his third eye was not. For the demon's third eye did not see the dark cave into which he had retreated since the Day Of Opening years ago, but instead saw that which was seen through the eyes of the destined child. Though Barubary slept, still he watched Ryu Bateson of Gate, as the time when the forces of Infinity would strike grew nearer and nearer.
It was a warm and windy day in Gate, an isolated northern town located near the lands of the Wind Clan. Despite this, the population of Gate was human, and travelers belonging to other clans were few and far between; even the Maniro Merchants' Guild hadn't seen fit to establish a toehold in Gate, despite controlling nearly the entire world's economy. Those members of other species that did visit Gate usually came in on ships, and tended not to stay long; not out of any perceived xenophobia, but simply because Gate held little of any interest.
Ryu, a child of seven, sat at the desk in his room, painstakingly attempting to repair a broken fishing rod despite a great deal of commotion from downstairs. Aside from his hair, dark blue in a short topknot, he was an ordinary-looking boy in an undershirt and shorts, barefoot unless forced. His father, Ganer, had given the rod to him with the promise that it was his should he be able to repair it. Though Ryu had no idea how to do so, he nevertheless made the attempt with a great deal of concentration. Some children were like that, especially those with fathers like his.
"Ryu!" Ganer finally called from the lower level, as the boy had known he would eventually. "Come down here!"
"Yes, Father!" Sighing, Ryu rose, still holding the rod in his hand. His house was the finest in Gate, and the only one with two stories. This was only natural, as his father was the local priest of St. Eva, and their home doubled as the cathedral, with their living quarters above it. Descending the stairs, he was immediately confronted by his father, who stood blocking the way off of the stairs, arms crossed.
"Ah, there you are." Ganer Bateson was a stern-faced man in his sixties, his hair and beard both snow-white in sharp contrast to his sun-browned skin. Despite his duties as a priest, he spent just as much time working outdoors with his friends and neighbors, which had kept him healthier than most men half his age. "Working on that, hm? I take it that you've completed the studies I assigned you on our world's history?"
"Yes, father," Ryu repeated, dreading what he knew was coming.
"Good, good." Ganer's eyes twinkled. "In that case, you should easily be able to recount a brief summary of the second Dragon War."
"Of course, father." Ryu took a moment to collect his thoughts before speaking again, tone mechanical and dry. "In the year 1010 AD, Emperor Zog ascended the throne of the Dark Dragons, and immediately began embarking upon a campaign for world domination. He announced this plan to the world with the absolute destruction of the Fusion Clan, the Dark Dragons' closest neighbors, whom they had long been on strenuous terms with. The fact that the near-extinction of the entire species was carried out by no more than five men, Zog's elite Tiamat Unit, terrified the world far more than Zog's armies."
"Name them," Ganer told him sharply.
"They were led by Jade, the Gold Lord," Ryu replied. "Emperor Zog's oldest friend, and closest confidante. His second-in-command was Cerl, the White Assassin, a woman of mixed heritage, half Dark Dragon and half Fusion Clan. It's believed that the destruction of her mother's people was partially an act of revenge for her exile. Third to be recruited was Cort, the Blue Alchemist, a brilliant scientist from the town of Spring who was outcast for his dangerous experiments. Also, the brothers Goda, the Black Warrior and Mote, the Red Dreamer."
"And?" Ganer prompted him further.
"The last member of the Tiamat Unit was not present for the massacre of the Fusion Clan," Ryu added. "Sara, the Silver Priestess, joined them ten years later, betraying the Light Dragons. By that time, the Dark Dragon Empire had gained control over the eastern half of the world, and were simultaneously striking against every country in the west. Though the Light Dragons were hardly a threat, living peacefully in the northern town of Drogen, Emperor Zog feared their power nonetheless, and sent Jade to destroy their home. Sara was only an unexpected bonus."
"And where was this town, Drogen, located?" Ganer asked.
"Right here," Ryu said firmly. "Where we now live. Many years after the Second Dragon War ended, one strange day, both the Light and Dark Dragons mysteriously disappeared from the world, leaving their homes undisturbed, as if they had simply vanished. Though New Scande remained abandoned, Drogen was settled by humans, who changed its name to Gate."
"Very good." Ganer smiled. "But you're getting out of order. What happened after the burning of Drogen?"
"A young man of the Light Dragons, enraged by the destruction of his home and what he saw as the kidnapping of his sister, set out on a quest to single-handedly defeat the Dark Dragon Empire, and kill Emperor Zog," Ryu recounted. "He quickly discovered Zog's true goal, the collection of the seven Goddess Keys, which would free the evil Goddess Myria from the magical prison of Pagoda, where she was sealed away following the First Dragon War." He took a deep breath before continuing. "His name was Ryu, even as the hero of the First Dragon War was named."
"And as you are named, too," Ganer reminded him unnecessarily.
"Yes, father," Ryu said quietly. "Ryu's travels took him through each of the countries of the east in turn, foiling the plans of the Dark Dragons wherever he went. In the process, he recovered one of the Goddess Keys from their forces and beat them to the locations of three more. He was joined in these endeavors by Nina, Princess of the Wing Clan; Bo, a hunter from the Forest Clan; Karn, a young thief from the outlaw town of Bleak who was a survivor of the Fusion Clan; Gobi, a Maniro merchant of the underwater metropolis Prima; and Ox, a blacksmith from the Builder Clan."
"Good, but you forgot one." Ganer cuffed him lightly. "Deis, the Legendary Sorceress of Wisdon, also joined them during the first half of their adventure, though only shortly before the climax. I trust you remember the details of that?"
"The conflict came to a head at the Battle of Prima, a sea war in which half of the entire Dark Dragon Navy was destroyed," Ryu explained, rubbing his shoulder. "The Dark Dragons attempted to destroy Prima, and Fleet Admiral Cean, their highest ranking military officer, was slain in combat. This brought Ryu and his friends to the attention of the Tiamat Unit as they continued into the lands of the east, which were already under the Dark Dragon Empire's control."
"Better," Ganer conceded. "What then?"
"Though each initial encounter with a member of the Tiamat Unit resulted in their spectacular defeat, Ryu and his men survived every time, and eventually triumphed, slaying one member after another," Ryu continued. "Cort was the first to fall, followed by Mote, and then Cerl. While doing so, they were joined by their last ally, Mogu, a youth of the Mole Clan. They also managed to wrest two more Goddess Keys from the Tiamat Unit, even as they advanced on Scande. In the end, they successfully infiltrated the palace, and in a titanic battle, they slew Emperor Zog."
"But the War was not over then, was it?" Ganer asked, smiling slightly.
"No," Ryu agreed. "Sara, whose identity had remained unknown to them, managed to trick them into turning over all of their Goddess Keys to her. Already possessing the seventh, the remaining half of the Tiamat Unit then went to release Myria from Pagoda. Though Ryu and his men pursued them, Sara held them off midway through the magical prison. Forced to kill his own sister, Ryu was still too late to stop Jade and Goda from releasing Myria, who promptly raised her flying fortress, Obelisk, from where it was buried beneath Scande."
"You have been studying," Ganer said approvingly. "Very good, Ryu. How was the war concluded, then?"
"Ryu and his friends sought the blessing of the Dragon God, Ladon," Ryu explained. "With his aid, they attacked Obelisk head-on. There, they slew both Goda and Jade, and then, inexplicably, the Goddess Myria herself as well. Obelisk exploded above the skies of the world, raining debris across the land, but Ryu and his men escaped, to go down in history as the saviors of civilization. Zog's heir, his only daughter, immediately surrendered, and the Dark Dragons began rebuilding as a more peaceful society. Mogu, Ox, Gobi, Karn and Bo all returned to their homelands as heroes."
"And Deis, Ryu and Nina?" Ganer asked.
"Deis returned to the ruins of Wisdon in the southeastern desert, and her eternal slumber," Ryu said, slightly skeptically. "Legend says she will awaken again when the world needs her once more. Ryu and Nina returned home as well, and then proceeded to marry, despite both their class disparity and the global laws against inter-clan unions."
"I'll test your knowledge of the sociological results of that another day," Ganer told him, patting him on the head. "For now, I'm satisfied that you haven't been neglecting your studies. Of course, stories of warring Gods are ridiculous, but in those days, St. Eva had not yet revealed himself to the world. It's only natural that men back then would worship powerful spirits, as it is that those spirits would find themselves in conflict with each other. Now then, I'm sure you heard Yua down here. She's run off again."
"Let me guess." Ryu relaxed, smiling slightly, now that the interrogation was done. "Nap time again?"
"How did you know?" Ganer replied just as wryly. "Somehow, I get the feeling she doesn't like naps. Maybe she's just going through a rebellious phase, or maybe it's because..." He trailed off. "Well, I can never find her when she gets out of the house. Can you go chase her down? You always seem to know."
"I'll try," Ryu hedged. He knew where his sister was, of course, but he'd promised her not to tell their father.
"Good boy." Ganer nodded. "Off you go, then. I'll let you get back to that rod once you bring her in."
"Thank you, father." Bowing, Ryu ran out of the house after his sister. Yua was only three, but like him, she was very intelligent for her age. In Yua's case, though, that was coupled with a willful streak she'd had even as a baby. Closing the door behind him, Ryu set off down the cobblestone path, nodding to the villagers as he passed by them towards the northern end of the town. As he passed, he kept his ears open, listening for anything said about him or his family.
"There goes Ryu," One of his neighbors commented to his wife. "He always looks so serious about everything."
"Well, it's been three years since his mother's death," She reminded him. "Nobody can cry forever. He's growing up fast, unlike his sister." She shook her head. "She still thinks her mother is alive, you know."
"Is that why she's always going up behind the village?" He asked quietly. "She's going to get hurt one of these days if she keeps doing that."
Looking away, Ryu increased his pace until he was out of hearing range. Gate was a small town, with simple houses and few streets. The people spent most of their days at work, either out in the fields or at other occupations, but they were devout in their worship of St. Eva, and friendly to each other and to travelers. The monsters in the area were relatively weak, and the men and women of the village easily able to protect themselves when necessary. For the most part, there was little to fear for a young boy.
That had all changed one night three years ago, but Ryu preferred not to think about that. Instead, he continued north until he reached the edge of the town, where an elderly neighbor was loading hay off of a cart near a glen leading up into the mountains.
"Ah, Ryu." He winked. "Off chasing Yua again? Listen, when you see your father, give him a warning from me. A ship stopped by down at the coast today-we really should see about getting some actual docks built there-and they said that there've been a lot of surprisingly young thieves going around lately. Apparently, they go to churches of St. Eva claiming to be orphans seeking help, and then steal everything they can get their hands on. Tell him to be careful if any show up, hm?"
"I will," Ryu promised as he made his way through the high grass into the glen. As soon as he was clear of the village, he relaxed further, a tension he didn't even understand leaving his body. Yua wasn't the only one who loved this place; everything seemed more vibrant and colorful in the glen. More alive. The tall grass would make navigation difficult for strangers, but Ryu knew all of the paths by practice, and could find any of the three gates for which the town had been named without fail on any day. Today, he went straight north, towards the largest, central portal.
The dragon was there, as it always was, visible as soon as he emerged from the undergrowth. It was no humanoid Dragon Clansman like in the legends, but a titanic beast larger than even his house. Its foreclaws held two of the three gates in the mountainside closed, and its head dangled over the third, a barricade greater than any lock. Though its silver-white scales were harder than steel and its claws and fangs fearsomely long and sharp, its closed eyes gave its face an oddly kind, gentle expression as it slept eternally, watching over their town as it had for as long as Ryu could remember.
Yua was on her back below the dragon's head, completely unafraid of it. Even as a baby, she'd never shown the slightest trace of fear, any more than Ryu had. Eyes closed, she didn't stir as Ryu walked up, but he knew better than to fall for that. Like him, her hair was an unnatural blue color, twin pigtails in her case. Her dress was a simple, armless white one, and like him, she preferred to avoid shoes.
"Hello, Yua," he said frankly.
"Hello, Ryu," she replied, just as calm. "I'm supposed to be taking a nap."
"Father doesn't like it when you come up here to take naps," Ryu reminded her. "He doesn't like coming up here."
"Father's mean," she told him, still keeping her eyes closed. "He hits you. I don't like when he does that. It serves him right if I run up here for my naps."
"He doesn't hit you," Ryu pointed out. "And he only hits me when I mess up, and then not as hard as some of the other villagers hit their sons."
"He only doesn't hit me because I'm a girl," She rebutted. "And I still don't like it. Besides, I sleep better up here. I always have nice dreams when I sleep under here, with her. I like her. She likes me, too."
"I know, Yua." Ryu sighed. For some reason, arguing with her always turned out this way. Before he could continue, though, he heard a rustling in the bushes nearby. It didn't sound quite like footsteps, and he couldn't see an adult's head poking out of the grass. He knew what that meant; it might have been an animal, but that was doubtful. "Yua, stand up and get behind me, up against the mountainside. Run for help if you see a chance."
Less than a second later, the beak attacked.
A local monster, the Gonghead beak was the weakest member of the species. Though its face was birdlike, that was the only part about it that resembled any other lifeform; the rest of its body was spherical, covered with a leathery, spiked blue hide. How the strange creatures were able to hover in the air was a mystery to him, but he knew they were a threat; he'd seen adults fight them off, killing the hungry monsters when they swooped out of bushes or trees. This one was clearly no exception; without hesitating, it dove at Ryu, beak gaping in a fierce screech.
He fought the urge to dive to the side, despite a sudden burst of fear that ran through his body. Instead, he tightened his grip on the rod in his hands, and as the monster bit into his shoulder, he screamed and struck it, knocking it away from him in a splash of blood. It hurt more than anything he'd ever felt before, but he ignored it, jumping on the beak and whacking it again and again with the rod, frantically trying to beat it down.
Enraged, the monster fought back, ramming him with its body. The leathery spikes gouged him, and he stumbled back, only for it to savage his leg. Somehow, he summoned up the strength to hit it away again, but then he faltered, leg unable to hold him up. Bleeding and whimpering, he held back tears as the monster rose into the sky once more, sensing its prey's weakness. Taking a moment to settle itself, it leered down at Ryu, then drew back, preparing to finish him off.
"Ryu!" Ganer's voice boomed through the air. "Get out of the way!" Hearing him, the beak paused, but Ryu knew better than it what that warning meant. He flung himself to the left, away from the monster, despite his injuries. As soon as he was clear, the sky opened up, and death rained from above. Spears of lightning as wide around as a human drove straight down, obliterating the beak entirely and opening up blast craters in the earth below. As quickly as it had struck, the magic was gone then, leaving only two very frightened children below the dragon's head.
"So here you are, Yua." Ganer emerged from the tall grass, face a mystery. Holding his hands up, he cast a healing spell on his son, and the wounds from the beak closed up, the pain receding in a matter of seconds. "I've asked you both not to come up here. That was very dangerous."
"I'm sorry, Father!" Ryu whimpered, still somehow managing to hold in the tears. "I'm so sorry about this!"
"Why are you sorry, Ryu?" Ganer asked him, sounding honestly baffled. "You came here to look for Yua, like I asked you. And then you protected her against that monster. You're growing up to be a very brave boy. No, if this is anybody's fault, it's mine. If that beast was able to get in here, then the wards around the town must be growing weak, and I haven't noticed. I should have redone them weeks ago."
"If monsters aren't supposed to get in here, why don't you want us coming?" Yua asked suddenly. "I just wanted to see Mom again, that's all!"
"Oh, Yua." Ganer sighed heavily, suddenly seeming much older than he usually did. "There are far too many memories associated with this place for an old man like me, in ways you're too young to understand just yet. Besides, you know very well that your mother..." He sighed again.
"I know," Yua admitted. "She's gone. But when I take my nap here, she comes to talk to me in my dreams. That's why I ran up here when you told me it was nap time!"
"She does, does she?" Ganer stared up at the dragon. "Yua... have I ever told you how your mother died?"
"No," Yua replied after a moment, suddenly sounding very afraid. "Nobody has."
"It was three years ago." Ganer's eyes clouded over. "These gates, which had been impossible to open for as long as our people could remember, suddenly burst, releasing hordes of demons into the world. We fought back, of course, but their leaders were more powerful than anything we could ever imagine. Just when we thought all was lost, this dragon appeared, and with its aid, your mother and I were able to drive them away with our magic. In the end, your mother's wounds proved fatal, despite her vast knowledge of white magic. I've always wondered if, had I chosen to study it as well instead of specializing in black magic, I might have been able to save her."
"But then you wouldn't have been able to help the dragon fight off the demons, right?" Yua asked suddenly. "Then they would have killed us all."
"Perhaps." Ganer still looked glum. "Perhaps. Even so, I wasn't strong enough. If I'd only had more power, studied magic even more..."
"That's not true either!" Ryu told him. "Your magic saved all of us! Everybody in the village says so! They say you and that dragon were the only ones who could stand against those demons! They say you could have been the strongest magician in the world if you hadn't devoted your life to St. Eva instead!"
"Do they, now?" Ganer looked at him oddly. "You have sharp ears as well, then, Ryu. I doubt they tell you such things to your face. Have you been using the Dragon Tear your mother left you on our neighbors as well?"
"Not very often." Ryu squirmed. "Not nearly as much as I used to."
"I suppose that's the best I can expect, in that regard," Ganer commented wryly. "At any rate, no sooner were the demons vanquished than did the dragon fall asleep here, telling us only that as long as it was undisturbed, no force on earth could open these gates from either side. I suppose we'll never know who built them now, or what lies beyond them. Perhaps that's for the best." He sighed, laying a hand on the side of the dragon's muzzle.
"Dad?" Ryu asked quietly.
"Three years, and I still feel as if my life is empty without her," Ganer continued, as if he hadn't heard. "Some days, I almost can't believe she was ever there in the first place. So much about her was a mystery, even to me..." He shook his head. "I just hope that she feels the same way as you two do about that day."
"She does!" Yua insisted. "I told you, she's in my dreams when I nap here! She told me all about this already! She misses you too, dad, but she says she knows you'll take care of us!" All her previous complaints about Ganer seemed forgotten. "And she says not to work yourself too hard trying to prove you're as tough as the younger men! They all know you are already!"
"Hahaha, that does sound like her," Ganer admitted. "She did always tell me that. I never understood how she could love a man so much older than her. Perhaps St. Eva does bring her to visit you in your dreams, Yua. Why don't we go back down to the house and talk about that?" He glanced at his son. "Coming, Ryu?"
"Nah," Ryu muttered. As always, talking about their mother unsettled him. "I'll just stay up here, if that's okay."
"There shouldn't be any more monsters around," Ganer said, glancing around the glen. "Very well, then. But be back before it gets dark. Come, Yua."
"All right, Dad." Yua turned to Ryu. "Try napping here, like I said, Ryu! Maybe you'll see mom in your dreams as well!" Grabbing her father's hand, she let him lead her down the trail, back towards Gate.
Though he hadn't noticed it before, Ryu did in fact suddenly feel oddly sleepy. It was a warm and windy day, and the breeze felt pleasant on his face. Laying his rod on the dirt at his side, the boy lay down on his back, eyes gazing at the sky, as if he were watching clouds. It was not long before they closed, and he fell into a deep slumber.
"Aahhh..." As the destined child's eye closed, so did the third eye of the Demon Lord Barubary, as his other two eyes opened instead. Stretching his vast limbs with a great creaking of bones and cracking of chitin, he yawned once, and then he spoke, his terrible voice carrying through every inch of the cavernous tunnels through the mountain range he and his lurked beneath. "The time has come! The destined child is separated from the town! Go, and finish what was started three years ago, in the name of he who is both King and God!"
When the echoes of his command had faded from the caves, there was silence for a time. Eventually, Barubary's ears picked up a familiar scratching sound approaching, accompanied by soft footsteps. Turning himself, he regarded the much smaller form of his only equal among even the Demon Lords.
"Hail, greatest of demons," the Demon Lord Habaruku greeted him sardonically, leaning on the cane he'd used for the last three years. Though they now held equal rank under their King and God, before his coming, Barubary had been the King of Infinity for eons with Habaruku as his most eminent servant and adviser. Despite Barubary's abdication, neither of them questioned which of them commanded the other.
"Hail, greatest of demons," Barubary replied. "Have the raiding party already departed, then? I would have thought you would be going with them."
"Ganer would recognize my presence approaching," Habaruku explained sourly. "Besides, Aruhameral is more than capable of command. He'll make sure everything goes well."
"Perhaps," Barubary acknowledged. "Normally, I would have preferred that Kuwadora or Shupukay do so, but in this situation, Aruhameral may be the best choice. His talents will likely prove highly effective against Ganer." He smiled, feeling the same sense of contempt he always did when talking to his oldest, closest friend. "Speaking of the old man, I would think that you would be eager to take revenge on him for your loss."
"Later, Barubary," Habaruku hissed. "Ganer will have a very long time to regret crippling me, I assure you. What of you, then? Have you no desire to repay Valerie for your defeat on that night when we returned to the surface of the world?"
"None at all." Barubary shrugged. "My injuries have all healed by now, and even had they not, I am not the type to hold grudges. I am a warrior, as is Valerie. Our conflict was a natural thing, and now it is over. My mind is on my next battle, not my last one."
"You truly are different," Habaruku said with a chuckle. "Perhaps it's because you're the eldest of us. You cast aside your mortality eons before even I. Sometimes I wonder if you've gone all the way around, and started to think like them from the other side again."
"It has been a long time, hasn't it?" Barubary asked, speaking another name, one that hadn't been heard for millenia.
"Do you mind?" Habaruku looked away sourly. "That name. I'd rather you not use it."
"My apologies," Barubary said honestly. It was odd, for him, to realize there was something he actually respected, but even the greatest of demons was imperfect.
"Hmph." Habaruku glanced back up, and a strange look came into his eyes. "Has he contacted you?"
"As before, not since we left Infinity." Barubary shook his massive head. "Either even his voice is barred from the world above, or he simply chooses not to speak to us. We know our orders, after all. There would be little point."
"And he does so hate wasting his attention on pointless things," Habaruku commented dryly. "Very well then. I'll be off. Aruhameral should have everything wrapped up by the time I get to the town, and I'll be able to take things from there." His eyes glittered maliciously as he turned around. "Give the old war heroes my regards, should they pay you a visit."
"Of course." Barubary grinned. "Have fun, old friend." As the sounds of Habaruku's feet and cane faded away, he settled down again, sensing the destined child was about to awaken. Smiling, he opened his third eye once more, and sent his thoughts out to the mind of the sleeping boy. More. We need more power. God needs more power. Give yourself to our God. Pray to God. Praise God. Sacrifice your body and soul to God. You are destined to become God's power...
Eyes slamming open, Ryu awakened from the familiar nightmare, whimpering. No matter how many times he saw the eye, with its grey-scaled sideways eyelids over light purple tissue, the bloodshot green eyeball and fiery orange pupil, it still frightened him more than anything he ever saw in the real world. Even sleeping under the dragon hadn't banished it from his dreams. Shaking his head with disappointment, he began making his way back to the village, noticing idly that the birds had stopped singing and no butterflies flew through the air.
As soon as he entered Gate, he knew that something was very, very wrong. It wasn't apparent at first, but something in the air had changed; there was a faint, sweet smell that was unfamiliar to him. As he walked down the path, his sense of alarm grew. Though he didn't stop to talk, the townspeople all looked at him as if he were a stranger. Some of them looked worried, others suspicious, but both were equally disturbing, coming from people he'd known his entire life.
On a hunch, he reached into his shirt and pulled out the Dragon Tear he wore on a string around his neck. The only thing his mother had left him, it was a magical, teardrop-shaped jewel set in a silver frame cast in a dragon's shape. Its color changed to reflect the opinions and feelings of whoever it was focused on towards the user. It had taken him some time to learn to interpret the colors, but he knew them well now. Normally, they were a range of yellow colors, verging into green for the most kindly disposed towards him, indicating friendly neutrality.
Today, they were orange, and in some cases even red. These people held no positive feelings towards him, if not active dislike.
Still avoiding conversation, Ryu started running, bolting down the dirt path towards his home. Bursting into the cathedral, he froze. What had been strange outside was nothing compared to what he saw before him. The largest man Ryu had ever seen was standing behind the altar, polishing a candlestick. Despite his old age, he was tall with broad shoulders and a muscular frame, head completely bald and face dangling an impressive gray mustache. More importantly, he was wearing the brown robes of a Priest of St. Eva, the same kind Ganer wore on formal occasions.
"Yes, child?" The stranger said, not looking up for a moment. When he did, his shaggy brows creased in worry. "Oh... another stray? Are you an orphan as well? Welcome to the house of St. Eva, then."
"Who are you?" Ryu demanded. "Where's Father Ganer?"
"Father... Ganer?" The priest said curiously. "I'm afraid I've never heard that name before. As far as I know, no such man serves the church of St. Eva. I am Father Hulk, the priest of this humble village for more than fifteen years now."
"What?" Ryu looked around wildly. Nothing looked familiar; the tiny things that identified the building as his home-Ganer's fishing trophies on the wall, Yua's toys left lying under the pews, his own shoddy attempt at a wooden practice sword in a corner-were all gone. The cathedral still had the same layout, but it was like somebody had tried to build it from scratch without knowing anything about who lived there.
"You may think of this as your own home for as long as you wish to stay in Gate," Hulk was rambling on, apparently unconcerned. "The church would never turn away a poor child like you, even if you were a thief, perhaps one who stowed aboard the ship that came today... but then, if you were, you would be disappointed, for this is a humble church, with little of value. But that's exceedingly unlikely, so let us put that thought aside. As it so happens, another orphan has also wandered into my church today." He clapped his hands sharply. "Bow!"
"Yes, Father?" Another boy, seemingly Ryu's age, ran down the stairs. He was of no Clan Ryu recognized; though his features were canid, they were unlike the wolfen Forest Clan. Instead, his floppy ears and short muzzle gave his chubby face the appearance of a beagle. Though he had no hair on his head, his body was covered with short, brown-and-white patched fur. His undershirt and shorts were similar to Ryu's, though much shabbier.
"This is..." Hulk turned to Ryu. "Oh, bother. What was your name?"
"Ryu." He said without much enthusiasm. "Ryu Bateson."
"Well, there you go." Hulk fingered his bristling mustache. "He'll be living with us as well from now on. I suppose that means you'll have somebody to help you with cleaning this cathedral from top to bottom tomorrow."
"Of course, Father." Bow lowered his head respectfully, but then he winked at Ryu. Unsure of what to do, Ryu winked back. This seemed to satisfy the other boy; raising his head again, he turned back to Hulk. "We'll serve in whatever way St. Eva feels is worthy in order to earn our food and bed here."
"Hm, speaking of that, it's time for dinner." Hulk walked out from behind the lectern. "Follow me, boys."
Dinner was a subdued affair. Ryu, for obvious reasons, was depressed beyond what he'd believed himself to be capable of, and neither of the other two seemed inclined towards conversation over their meal either. The quality of the food didn't help matters; bread and water was a far cry from Ganer's skill in the kitchen. After helping Bow with the dishes, Ryu excused himself and went up to what had been his and Yua's room. Like the lower floor, it was stark and bore no familiar traces, all of their possessions gone. He supposed he would be sharing it with Bow instead, now. What truly disturbed him, though, was the thought of Hulk sleeping in his father's bed.
Climbing into bed, he stared up at the ceiling, but didn't sleep. His mind raced through the day's events, still trying to convince himself that there was some reasonable explanation. Despite his efforts, though, none presented itself, and he was forced to conclude that logic was no longer applicable. The hope that it was all a nightmare he would awaken from faded more and more with every passing minute. Engrossed in his own thoughts, he didn't even look over when Bow entered the room and silently blew out the candles before climbing into bed as well.
When he climbed back out of bed, however, Ryu did raise his head to watch as the other boy began closely examining the room, opening the closets and rifling through the drawers. Judging from the sounds of disgust he made, he wasn't impressed with what he found.
"What a cheap place," Bow muttered eventually. "Guess the candlesticks might be worth something, but that's about it."
"What are you doing?" Ryu asked, sliding out of bed. On an impulse, he used his Dragon Tear, which came up teal. Despite how they'd just met, Bow was feeling more friendly towards him than most people he'd known all his life.
"Come on, no need to play dumb," Bow said, grinning as he pinched out the candles. "Same gig as me, right? Give the old man the orphan sob story to get in, then see what's around once the lights are out? Don't worry, he's already asleep; he snores like a foghorn."
"You've got good ears," Ryu complimented him. His were better than most humans, and he couldn't hear anything.
"Thanks!" Bow slipped the candles into a sack in the corner, apparently his. "Anyways, we can take a look around the rest of this place, but I wouldn't get my hopes up. If it's like this room, we'll just be wasting our time." He winked again. "Maybe we'd have more luck in a bigger town, huh? Of course, the story'll probably be harder to sell there. It might look better if we went together, you know what I'm saying?"
"You want to team up?" Ryu asked slowly, still working his way through the other boy's assumption that he was an orphan thief as well.
"Yeah, why not!" Bow held out his hand. "I've heard of other guys working this before, but I've never met any. You look tough and smart, and watching each others' back helps us both out. What do you say? Partners?"
"All right." Ryu took his hand and shook it. "Partners." It wasn't as difficult as decision as one would think. The idea of staying here, living with an unfamiliar man in what had been his family's home and being scowled at by friends who no longer remembered him, was completely out of the question. Bow's suggestion had provided him with a way out he hadn't even thought of, and he wasn't going to pass it up; it was unlikely he'd get a better one. "We can raid the pantry for food, at least. And maybe medicine, too."
"Good idea!" Bow agreed. "I wouldn't have thought of that. See, we'll be great partners! Come on, grab your stuff."
"Right." Ryu checked the drawers just in case any of his spare clothing was there, but he wasn't in luck. Sighing, he hefted his fishing rod. "I'll need to repair this before it's any use, but it'll come in handy down the line."
"You know how to fish, huh?" Bow guessed. "Nice. With that and my sling, we'll be able to scrounge up enough food on the road. We should still see what's in the pantry, all the same, though. Just in case."
"Is that where we're going?" Ryu whispered as they slipped out of their room and down the stairs. "The road north?"
"The only other way off this dead-end is by ship," Bow explained. "And hanging around the harbor waiting for one to stow away on is way too risky. I got lucky; there was one right there after my last job. I didn't know it would be taking me somewhere like this, but that's the way it goes." He shrugged philosophically and opened the door to the kitchen. "Let's try and take stuff that'll last as long as possible."
"Sounds good to me," Ryu agreed, checking the top shelf where his father used to keep medical supplies. For once, something went right; Hulk seemed to do the same. "There's some herbs up here too, in case we get hurt." He filled an old potato sack, adding his rod to it as well, then slung it over his shoulder like Bow's. "All right, let's get out of here." The two of them slipped out the front door and began creeping down the road, keeping an eye out for anybody else out at this hour.
"Yeep!" Bow squealed, jumping suddenly, as they passed a clump of trees. "What's that?"
"What's what?" Ryu glanced around, then realized what had startled his friend. "That's just the old statue of Ladon."
"Oh, right." Bow walked over and stared up at it, and after a moment, Ryu joined him. "You know, I never really got why people say they're creepy. I kind of like them." Ladon, the Dragon God, had been the most popular of the spirits worshiped by primitive people before St. Eva had revealed himself to the world. From what Ryu had heard, every city in the world had an ancient statue of him somewhere.
"Me too," Ryu agreed, putting a hand on it. Though the temples that had once housed them had crumbled away with time, the statues themselves were made from an unknown rock, and apparently indestructible. He'd read that they were originally a glossy black, but age and exposure to the elements had changed this one to a pale green color. His father had always told him to stay away from the statue, but for some reason, he had always felt a strange affinity for it. After a moment, he turned away. "We'd better get out of here."
"Yeah, we're gonna want to be a long way away by sunup." Bow agreed, the two of them leaving through the south gate. The road soon turned west, and they trudged along, looking around carefully for any prowling beasts. "Any idea what kind of monsters we're gonna have to watch out for around here?"
"Mostly beaks," Ryu said, watching the skies. "Sludges, but even kids like us can take those."
"Gonghead or Sniphead?" Bow asked apprehensively.
"Okay, good." He exhaled. "Had me worried there for a moment. We'll be able to see 'em coming, then, as long as we stay on the road, and I can drive 'em off with my sling."
"You're good with it?" Ryu asked, continuing the conversation more out of a need for distraction than actual curiosity.
"I can hit a Gonghead at a hundred paces," Bow bragged. "My aim never fails. What I really want is to get a crossbow, but it's kind of hard finding somebody who'll sell a kid our age one of those, you know? Even if I could afford one." He shrugged. "We'll figure it out eventually. Find a big city, score a heist, and get rich young."
"You're optimistic." Ryu couldn't help but smile.
"Better than frowning all the time, right?" Bow did as well. "Cheer up, buddy! People might start thinking that hair of yours is getting to you. It's real, isn't it? Don't think I've ever seen anybody with blue hair before."
"My sister had it too," Ryu said without thinking. Instantly, his thoughts went to Yua. Closing his eyes, he kept talking. "We got it from our mother. I don't know why she had it, but I guess it runs in the family."
"You remember them, huh?" Bow asked curiously. He hesitated a bit before continuing. "Do you know... what happened to them?"
"My mom died three years ago," Ryu said honestly. "My dad and sister... I don't know. One day they were just... gone."
"I'm sorry, man." Bow put a hand on his shoulder, the enthusiasm gone from his voice for once. "That's gotta be worse than even being an orphan. At least then you know for sure."
"Your parents?" Ryu asked cautiously.
"Yeah." Bow nodded. "I'm a half-breed, see. My mother was Forest Clan, and my father was Grassrunner. They got caught."
"You mean..." Ryu's eyes widened.
"Death penalty, for both of 'em," Bow said it simply, as if it didn't matter, but his eyes told a different story. "It's a global law, isn't it? Everybody knows what happened to the Wing Clan after that one time. Hell, look at me. I don't have the Breath of Wood or Grass. I've tried. I'm just lucky they didn't kill me, too." He shook his head suddenly. "Anyways, think we'll be able to make it to the mountains by morning?"
"We should," Ryu replied. "It's not all that far. Just a few more miles."
"Good." Bow nodded. "Then we should... aw, no." He paused, sniffing the air. "You gotta be kidding me."
"What is it?" Ryu started looking around, worried.
"Smells like rain, that's what!" Bow broke into a run, and Ryu followed him. "We better hurry! There'll be some shelter around there, with any luck!"
"You really think so?" Ryu asked, already feeling light sprinkles.
"You got any better ideas?"
They stopped talking then, keeping their breath and concentrating on running. The downpour came shortly afterwards, and in a matter of seconds they were absolutely drenched. Before long, Ryu lost track of time entirely, with no idea how long they'd been out. Still, they pressed on, and eventually, they saw the mountain range ahead growing closer and closer.
"There!" He pointed. "A cave, over that way!"
"Let's go!" Bow panted, and the two of them bolted for it. As soon as they were inside, both of them fell over onto their hands and knees, and spent the next few minutes doing nothing but catching their breath. "At least... we won't... have to worry... about beaks now."
"Yeah." Ryu stood up. "I just hope there aren't any monsters in this cave." Suddenly, he was aware of just how completely pitch black it was inside the cave.
"Crud!" Bow jumped to his feet as well. "I didn't think of that! Hold on, hold on..." After a moment, the flame of a lit match appeared, then settled onto a candle he was holding by the stick. "Good thing I swiped these from the church. We'd better take a look around, just to be sure. Here." Lighting another candlestick, he gave it to Ryu. "Come on, let's-whoa! Over there!" He ran off, and after a moment, Ryu followed.
What he'd seen turned out to be very strange. A length of spheres, bulbous red, ridged flesh on their undersides with heavy gray spiked plates on top. One end was a single, long purple spike; the other was beyond the range of their candlelight. As they stared at it, it began moving, dragging off away from them into the cavern's depths.
"Think we should follow it?" Bow asked, excited.
"What if it's a monster?" Ryu replied, but his heart wasn't in it. He was just as curious as his friend.
"It didn't attack us, did it?" Bow argued. "Even the part we could see was bigger than both of us together. If it was a monster, it could have killed us easily. It's gotta be something else. Come on, let's find out!" He ran after the dragging noises, and after a moment, Ryu followed. The cave was deep and dark, but though the walls narrowed at times, it was never even close to being a problem for them to fit through. They chased the strange thing with ease, until the walls suddenly widened dramatically around them into a massive chamber, and they saw, far too late, what their mistake had been.
What had seemed so huge to them was only the tail of the monstrosity crouched in the center of the chamber, now twitching around behind it restlessly. Its base was squat and vaguely cylindrical, a gray-armored mass with six insect legs spaced evenly around it. Above that, the thing's torso rose, towering as tall as a house, its back bent and curved under folded, vestigial wings. Two horrible arms sprouted from the sides like branches with no trace of shoulders, armored even more heavily than the rest of the beast. No traces of red ribbed flesh could be seen on those, plates of natural armor overlapping to end in rows of wicked, hooked claws.
It was the beast's head, however, that was the true horror. Rather than rearing above it, the head extended out in front on an unnaturally lengthy column of flesh. Broad with horns and finlike protrusions, its mouth extended along the bottom of the skull and up the sides, splitting the lower half of the head apart without any seperate jawbone. The only features on the actual front of the face were its three eyes, two of which were thankfully closed. But the third, in the center of its forehead, was open, blazing golden light.
And so it was that the Demon Lord Barubary saw himself through the eyes of another, even as he awakened.
"Ah..." Barubary hissed. "So you have come to me."
"A m... m..." Bow tried to scream, but the word wouldn't come. Ryu knew what he was thinking; the word "monster" seemed inadequate to describe something of this magnitude. There was only one word he knew that would be appropriate.
"A demon," He whimpered, hand shaking as he brought the Dragon Tear up. Its color was one he'd never seen before, as black as night, but its meaning was clear.
"Demons aren't real!" Bow said shrilly. "Demons aren't real! Demons aren't-"
With a contemptuous flick of his tail, Barubary slapped him away, and the boy crashed into the cavern wall before sliding to the bottom, eyes vacant.
Staring at Bow, Ryu turned back to Barubary, then slowly drew his rod from his pack, eyes defiant.
"You wish to fight me?" Barubary asked, voice deep and terrible. Staring down at Ryu, and at himself through Ryu's eyes, he did something else them, something even more horrifying. He began to laugh. "Truly, you are the one we have been waiting for! Very well then... show me your resolve, and I will reward you as is your due for such bravery!"
Before he had even finished talking, Ryu attacked, launching himself at the demon wildly. He knew that there was no hope of succeeding, but the sight of his friend being brutalized had lit his brain on fire. Without even thinking about what he was doing, he lunged at Barubary, striking at the beast's legs blindly.
Barubary watched him flail for several moments, eyes amused, before lashing out with one terrible arm, backhanding him twenty feet into the air and watching him fall back down with bone-breaking force.
"Come, Ryu." Barubary's voice rumbled, even as the boy's consciousness faded. "Let me see you open the gate, destined child. Then, and only then, will you know the true power of he who is God!"
As his eyes closed, as his mind faded, and as his body screamed in pain, Ryu's heart finally succumbed to despair. And as it did, he no longer saw the cavern, or the demon who had broken him without even the slightest hint of effort. He saw another world, deep beneath the surface of the one he knew, but not far. He saw a tower, one that stretched down instead of up, wide and vast beyond imagination, floating in an empty darkness that was vaster still. Down and down and further down still, the tower fell, until there was nothing but silence and emptiness, at the bottom of the dark.
And as he embraced the vision, as his ears were filled with Barubary's shriek of exultation, he felt it tearing at the edge of his reality, eager to embrace it, to replace it.
"You are the one!" Barubary's cry filled the cavern, even as his third eye closed, and the mind of the destined child with it.
Alone once more, the demon lord Barubary stared down at the fallen boy. He would live, of course; Barubary had been careful of that. So would the other, the loyal one, though his necessity was far less strong than that of the boy. Still, destiny had touched them both, and Barubary was wary of tampering with that out of whimsy. Only in absolute confidence would he chance attempting to alter that which he knew was fated to happen. Staring down at the destined child, alone and unprotected, he felt the temptation to do just that, to open the gate now, when he knew there would be no unwanted interference.
But then he heard the approaching footsteps, and he knew he had been foolish to assume he had not been seen.
"That's quite enough, Barubary," a voice snapped out of the darkness. "Don't be an idiot. Damage him permanently, and we all lose."
"He knows that," another voice snarled. "The kid's tough. He'll recover. Good thing we got here when we did, all the same. He might have been tempted to break the deal, otherwise. Wouldn't you, Barubary?"
"Perhaps," the Demon Lord rumbled, voice becoming amused. "It's been some time. Welcome, Ryu and Ryu."
The two old men walking towards him were a study in opposites, aside from their age and gender. One was tall and strong, still well-muscled despite his age, clean-shaven with his white hair long but well-groomed. A horizontal scar stretched across his forehead, still unhealed despite the centuries since he'd received it, and he wore undecorated robes in red. The other was bent and twisted, hunchbacked and burly, his arms like oak branches. His hair and beard were just as white and long, but they were an unruly mess. His robes were white, and on them was the mark of Ladon, the Dragon God.
"That's really very confusing, you know," the latter remarked to the former. "We should really pick other names, at least for when we're having these meetings."
"Says the man with a thousand of them." The other one snorted. "What, should we call you 'Uncle Specs' again? You'll have to come up with one for me too, then. I'm lousy at that."
"It works." The first one shrugged. "How about 'Martin,' then?"
"Whatever." The other old man glanced up at Barubary. "Let's get on with this, then. We're all out of time to dawdle, now."
"Very well," Barubary agreed, still amused. The magic of changing shape and form was simple and familiar to all demons, even one like him, who had studied the art but little. Shrinking and shifting, he became a similarly ancient human, taller then Martin but much leaner, with a short beard and hairstyle, clad in black robes with his own God's image upon them. "This should make things a bit more convenient."
"Very funny." Specs rolled his eyes. Snapping his fingers, he conjured a table and three chairs, and they all sat down, ignoring the fallen children. "Your number two's been cheating, by the way. He thinks we didn't notice, but we did."
"Oh?" Barubary glanced at the mixed-breed boy. "I can hazard a guess as to how." He shrugged. "He will be punished."
"Charming way to talk about your best friend," Martin commented. "Sometimes you demons seriously make me reconsider my decision to become a neutral party."
"That decision need not be permanent," Specs said gently. "There is always time to reconsider, old friend. You can still come back to us."
"And then one of you says something like that, and I remember why," Martin growled angrily. "I told you the same thing I told Ladon, Specs. I gave him one last chance, and he crossed that line too. I'm done with him, and you, and your entire damned religion. Keep trying to rerecruit me, and maybe I'll actually team up with Barubary here just to wipe you all from the face of the world once and for all."
"We might want to talk about that," Barubary murmured.
"Oh, no you don't." Martin turned to him next. "He's not going to actually push me that far. I've got my eye on you, too, 'buddy.' Because I know that if I don't, you're the most likely of all of us to try and slip past this little arrangement we have here."
"This is your fault, you know," Barubary remarked to Specs. "He's like this because you pushed him too far. If you hadn't gone over the line, he'd probably still be on your side, and he wouldn't be nearly this mentally damaged either."
"Oh, don't you even get started," Specs snapped. "You, of all people, talking about where fault lies? Don't make me laugh."
"Shut up, shut up, everybody just shut up!" Martin yelled. A few deep breaths later, he continued. "We're getting off track here. If we start arguing about every little petty thing we all hate about each other, we'll be at this all night. Let's just focus on business, so we can get this settled and over with as soon as possible."
"Very well," Specs agreed. "The fourth one is here. We can all agree on that. Beyond that, though, we all have our own, separate intentions for him." He glanced at Martin. "Or so I assume. Mine and Barubary's, at least, are clear."
"Indeed." Barubary narrowed his eyes. "Once again, let me assure you, I am not going to simply allow you to lead him down the merry path of destiny and make him into your 'hero.' We've all seen where that leads."
"That we have." Martin closed his eyes. "I'm with him. Talk all you want about Ladon not seeing his side as pieces on a game board like Myria did. I bought that story far too many times. Not any more. He can apologize all he wants, but he'll still do 'what's necessary.' No." He shook his head. "Try it, and I really will side with Barubary."
"Fine." Specs glared at the Demon Lord. "But by the same token, we're not simply going to let you use him and dispose of him like you intend to."
"I think you might be a bit confused," Barubary said lightly. "Or perhaps you've been talking to Habaruku." He smiled as Specs' eyes twitched. "A joke. Relax. I'm aware of your opinion on him. There's a reason I've never invited him to these meetings, you know. Similarly, I've never told him the entirety of the boy's destiny."
"That's nice," Martin commented sarcastically. "But it's not going to make either of us inclined to let you get away with whatever it is you are planning. Just because we're playing nice doesn't change the fact that we know all too well what that would result in. And despite cutting my ties with Ladon, if you force my hand, I will play his game one more time to stop you."
"He talks so often about choosing one side or the other." Barubary rolled his eyes. "I have to wonder why the two of us have never talked about teaming up against him. Just to see the look on his face, if nothing else."
"He knows us both too well," Specs reminded him. "He'd just laugh. And he'd be right to do so. Because it would be a joke." He glanced back at Martin. "All right, then. Looks like it's about time for you to stop hedging, and let us know just what you've got in mind."
"Me?" Martin leaned forward, eyes cold. "I say we keep our hands off, all three of us. No ulterior motives, no attempts to steer him, no destiny bullshit. Drop him and his friend off at the other side of this cave, watch over them to make sure they don't die before they get to a town, and then let it go from there. Give him a chance to have a normal life, to make his own way. Then, if he chooses to change that... well, at least he'll have a choice in the matter."
"An interesting suggestion," Specs murmured, glancing at Barubary. "You are aware, of course, that our demonic friend there has already forged a mental bond with the boy. It's a little late to go undoing that, and that would complicate matters."
"I'll swear not to interfere, if you'd like," Barubary said thoughtfully. "I like this plan, actually. And despite everything else I am, you are both aware that I am an honest demon. I'll even agree to allow you to balance it out with something similar, so long as you don't interfere either." He smiled darkly. "Perhaps Ladon could talk with him."
"Monitored," Martin added firmly. "I don't trust Ladon either. But under those circumstances, that seems fair to me."
"And aside from that, we all stay away until he seeks us out." Specs slowly nodded. "Very well, gentlemen. It seems we have an agreement. I will abide by the terms we've set down here, as will the other priests of Ladon."
"As will I, and all of the council of Infinity," Barubary agreed.
"As will I, and my friends." Martin glanced over at Ryu for the first time. "So it is agreed, and so it shall be done. I've done the best I can, kid. It's up to you, now."
"Glad to see everybody's getting along," A fourth voice said sardonically. A female voice. All three turned their heads to watch a woman whose body became that of a snake's from the waist down approach, making no sound as she moved. Her blouse and hood were both violet, and she carried a staff in her hands. Though all of them knew her to be older than any of them, her face showed no signs of it, beautiful in an ageless, unidentifiable way. Her hair was long and blue, and her eyes green and hard as she regarded them. "Because now that that's out of the way, you've got some explaining to do, boys."
"Deis," Martin greeted her, eyes a mystery. "You're awake again already. Karn and Gobi... and Bo... will be happy to see you."
"It worked, huh?" Deis asked him, staring at him. For a moment, only a moment, her gaze softened. "And Nina?"
Martin closed his eyes and looked away, saying nothing.
"You're going to talk eventually, you know." She joined them at the table. "One of you, or all of you, I really don't care. But I am going to get answers, one way or another. Where's Nina, if the others are still here? Why did I wake up early, instead of sleeping until the fourth one came to find me? Where did the rest of the Dragon Clan go? And the Mole Clan, for that matter? And above all else, who the hell is St. Eva, and why is everybody worshiping him instead of Ladon now? Talk, gentlemen. And I'd better like what I hear."