It was evident throughout all of my journeying, from the time I rescued Tiem, to the underwater trek through Climatrol, to being imprisoned on the doomed satellite station Gaila and the resulting loss of an entire planet, that I was not prepared. None of my training as an agent and none of my experience from one disastrous event to another during the last year prepared me for any of the new twists and turns as I drifted through the Algol star system searching for the truth. I had a few more scars, found true fellowship and lost a sister. I learned about justice, the decay of humanity and lost my faith in the system. I kept on going, because...
Well, I don't know why I kept on going. I stopped concerning myself over my true intentions long ago. Maybe I kept at it because there was nothing left for me to do instead. Apparently my six comrades felt the same way, as they stayed loyal to our "cause," whatever that may be, truly. Some say we're doing this because we're trying to figure out what's wrong with the Mother Brain system and why there is such great ruin throughout Algol. The Commander would say that, probably.
Why would it matter, though? What if the network couldn't be fixed? Would Algol be able to survive without the system now that Palma was gone? It all seemed to point to a grim future for Algol, no matter the outcome, and that's why I can't explain why I'm still here, why I'm traveling through this dark canyon called Crevice, filled with all manner of ferocious beasts hiding in the dense fog, chasing down a dubious lead that on the other side of this chasm there are answers. I've searched for answers before, and each time the resulting loss was worse: first two strangers, then my sister, and most recently all of Palma. I can only imagine that what awaits us just outside Crevice is really the end of the entire star system.
Esper Mansion supposedly existed on the other side of Crevice. If it really was true and not just Dezolisian folklore, I can see why the Espers chose this place for their exile. Crevice was like a moat and a labyrinth in one, and on either side of the canyon were impassible mountain ranges that went on for an eternity. The terrain of Dezolis was as unforgiving as its frozen climate. The planet was downright frightening on every level, so it was no wonder to me that laconia was abundant here. I'd wager that even the minerals would have to be the hardiest to survive a place like this.
Even if it was logical for the Espers to come here to escape from Mother Brain, there was no guarantee we would actually find them. The planet's natives were known for their colorful language and embellishment of truth, and there were no Palmans left on Dezo—that I knew of—that could verify the Espers really were here. All I had to go by were the Dezolisians' stories and Captain Tyler's hunch. That I was reduced to following the questionable leads of a space pirate and leery natives instead of my commander and Mother Brain seemed like an ironic twist to this government agent, but there was nothing funny about putting the lives of the six people traveling with me in constant danger.
No one forced any of them to come with me. Not that this made me feel less responsible for their fate, since we were all wanted by the government for treason. If all roads pointed to eventual death or execution, then the choice to continue searching with me for answers probably seemed no different to them than waiting to be apprehended and put to death. Maybe this was the better alternative, even. I made sure to watch all of my team members often, looking for signs of unease, fatigue and despair, not only because we were only as strong as our weakest link, but also because I always wanted to emphasize that this wasn't about me; I always wanted to make sure they knew they could leave if they wanted. Yet, the closeness between all of us was obvious, and I doubted any of them would ever take up my offer to send them back to Motavia.
I looked around at my comrades as we slowly cut through the foggy gorge. Of our group, only one team member was directly ahead of me: Rudo. He stopped in his tracks suddenly and studied the motion detector/reader on his right forearm's guard and instrument panel. "More activity at twelve o'clock, a few dozen meters ahead," Rudo said without alarm or much of any emotion at all, really. He was deep into his dutiful soldier role right now, which seemed cold at times, but was useful for the team's morale. I glanced behind me to make sure everyone else was ready. Hugh, Amy and Kain stepped aside to make room for Anna, whose dual slashers usually made for an effective initial attack, often taking out creatures completely before they could retaliate.
Anna moved forward, passing all of us, including Rudo. Shir seemed missing at first until I saw her a little above us crouched quietly on a rock outcrop closer to the beasts just ahead of our group. Anna squinted off into the fog and must have seen exactly what I had, as she turned to me as if to seek approval to continue advancing towards our enemies. I gave it to her readily without saying a word, simply gesturing for her to keep moving.
Through the clouds I could make out the gleaming white eyes of the ohx, a three-eyed primate that always traveled in pairs and stayed low to the ground until it was ready to attack. We would have to kill them; between the narrow chasm and the beasts' aggressive, predatory nature, there was little choice. There wasn't a way around them. Fortunately they did not appear to be in the company of other Dezolisian wildlife, which meant this would probably be a quick encounter, odds in our favor.
"Ohx. Two of them," Anna stated, keeping her voice low and just as phlegmatic as Rudo's. She lurked with breathless motion across the ground, drawing her slashers from their harnesses on her back. Her movements were so silent and fluid it was like watching a cat close in on her prey. Anna readied her laser-bladed weapons and waited for the ohx to move closer together. She cocked her arms back, blades out, and momentarily shifted her eyes to Shir's perch, giving the green-haired thief a slight nod. Shir returned the gesture, and through the mist I could tell, by the faint glow of a short, bluish-white beam, she had activated one of her laser knives, moving closer to the edge of her rock stoop.
Battle strategy came so easily to us these days, I thought as I grabbed the hilt of my sword. I didn't even need to give my group specific orders much at all anymore, as the seven of us had become a very tight bunch, operating like we had but one mind. I already knew Anna's and Shir's plan of action: Anna would strike first from her safe distance, and what remained of the ohx would be left to Shir's overhead ambush. That should be enough to end this small encounter, but I had my thumb on the charger of my sword's blade just in case. A quick glance at Rudo indicated he was in a similar mindset, as I watched him gaze intently ahead, his right hand milking the grip of his rifle while he kept his left index finger just below the trigger. The rest of the group remained farther behind, ready in case of an emergency, but knowing it was best to stay back and not crowd the battlefield.
As the two ohx formed a tighter pair, Anna used the opportunity to strike. The curved light from her slashers illuminated the thick air around us, whirring through the chasm like lighted helicopter blades as she launched the sharp weapons towards the beasts with flawless expertise. The first blade struck an ohx through the midsection, certainly a deep wound, but the same blade was partially deflected by the second ape, slicing through a few fingers and nothing more. Anna's second slasher made another deep cut on the first ohx but to her chagrin the blade suddenly died after initial impact with the monster and dropped quickly to the ground. Anna caught the returning slasher with her magnetic launcher/retriever and grimaced with displeasure as she watched the second blade fall too far away from her. With the flick of a wrist, she deftly flipped the caught blade around, effectively turning her slasher into a cutlass, and gallantly charged ahead to finish off an ohx in melée formation. Shir had already pounced on the least injured ohx, and was now riding it like an untamed eletusk. Her left hand held on to the beast's fur as a rein, while her right hand shoved the knife through its neck, probably severing a jugular vein based on the sheer volume of blood spray I witnessed shooting out of its neck like a fountain.
Rudo and I closed in, but it looked like the encounter would be over shortly. As Shir's ohx flopped to the ground, she nimbly maneuvered herself away from it with a few acrobatic spins and tumbles. I approached the beast to finish it off more quickly than a knife would, decapitating the mortally wounded animal with one swift slice across its throat. I wasted no time turning my attention to Anna, but she had already stepped aside, having slain the other animal on her own. Her cool grin in my direction might have seemed psychotic to some, but I knew better. She didn't take pleasure in killing anything, even simpler life forms. Her smile was indication that we had made it through another beastly encounter relatively unscathed, ready to move on in high spirits. I felt the same way and grinned back at her.
Now was the time to check the rest of my group. "Any injuries?" I asked, shifting glances towards all of my teammates. Heads shook as I heard a mumbled 'no' here and there. I figured as much. I smiled wryly and continued, "Complaints? Suggestions? Grievances?"
Everyone had a good chuckle over the lightheartedness of my comment before we took a short inventory and proceeded on with our journey. Just as we were stepping over the two ohx carcasses, Hugh cleared his throat in his way that typically suggested he was about to give us a brief science lesson.
"That's the second pair of ohx we've encountered in only a matter of minutes. That seems unusual considering these primates are tree dwellers," reported Hugh as we made a sharp turn past the ohx and through the chasm. We all slowed our pace and cast eyes on the biologist; I watched him morph into a professor as he crossed an arm around his chest and scratched under his chin with the other, eyes narrowing in thought. "It stands to reason there's a gentler ascent/descent nearby, and possibly the ohx are coming here only because they detect us."
"Why would them weirdo apes give a damn about us?" Kain snorted out a question.
"Food? Curiosity?" suggested Hugh with a shrug.
"Them's one stupid species, if they think they's gonna turn us into a meal," continued Kain. A few of our party agreed, nodding back at the engineer-turned-wrecker.
"Nevertheless," Hugh proceeded in his lesson, looking around at the rock walls, "we're probably near an exit, one that leads to stable ground and forests rather than steep, rocky mountains."
A sense of relief washed over me, as I dreaded dragging my group through this pit for much longer. We'd already been traveling through Crevice for several hours. More brainstorming led me to look back at Shir, asking, "How did you get on those rocks above the ohx?"
Without hesitation Shir pointed behind us to a niche between two rocks that appeared to lead to an inclined passage. I was a little perturbed she hadn't mentioned this to the rest of the group, but Shir was purposefully difficult to decipher at times, "predictably unpredictable," as Hugh once put it. Even after a year of journeying with her I still didn't understand fully her behaviors. Her support for our group was often self-serving, though I could see she was putting more effort into being a true member of the team the longer she stayed with us.
"You could have said something, Shir," I reprimanded her slightly.
Without remorse, she replied, "I honestly thought you would have asked sooner; I guessed it wasn't important once we moved past it." I saw Rudo put his face in his hand and groan at Shir's reasoning. I sympathized with him, but it was pointless to appear angry at Shir.
"Feel free to point out something like this in the future," I told her unsarcastically. She merely shrugged in response, playing the distant loner of the group, but I knew she'd take to heart this little conversation. She wasn't entirely without affinity towards us, after all. "In any event, it's good that you were scouting out alternate routes; let's see where this goes." I could tell my compliment bolstered her ego a bit, as she unsuccessfully hid a satisfied half-smile and took a light, peppy skip in the opposite direction towards the rock cleft. We all followed her lead, happy to be ascending for a change.
The new path continued to gain daylight as we climbed, until the passage finally gave way to the welcome sight of the plateau beyond Crevice. I couldn't help but smile, facing the group behind me and exchanging looks of relief. I almost forgot that until we emerged at the top we weren't in the clear, and who knew what was waiting for us above. I pulled on Shir's arm to stop her from being the first to exit Crevice and waved for Rudo to take another activity scan of the area.
We waited patiently for Rudo's reading, which came a handful of breathless seconds later. A sure nod of his head and an "all clear" were all the encouragement I needed to allow Shir to be the first to make the final ascent, though not without a warning to remain cautious.
I watched her move with careful discrimination, barely disturbing the earth below her and skillfully using a set of small, convex mirrors to reflect the area above us before peering over the face of the canyon wall. She appeared as satisfied as Rudo that we would not be met by a mob of angry Dezolisians or a swarm of voracious, savage monsters. She quickly put away her surveillance equipment and peered over the edge, but immediately gasped and ducked behind the rock face.
"What is it?" I asked worriedly, in shock over the swift change from her confident reassurance that we were safe to her look of sudden fear.
"A ghost," she gulped under her breath, her eyes wide and hands gripping the rock wall tensely. I couldn't imagine what would make the fearless, thrill-seeking Shir turn so pale and cowering. I pushed ahead of her, not at all excited to witness this "ghost" of hers, but this was my job, to lead from the front, to be the first to make contact with the unknown. It was unnerving to consider that whatever Shir had seen had defied our sensors and even low-tech reflection. Perhaps it was a ghost.
My eyes stung momentarily as they adjusted to the increased daylight along the plateau. I had my sword ready as I scanned the area, making most of myself scarce behind the face of Crevice. It didn't take long to witness Shir's specter. A few meters from the edge was the shadow of a cloaked figure, silhouetted against the dim rays of our setting sun. The warmer and more humid air from the canyon mixed with the cold, dry climate above; along with the yellow light of Algol, it created a buttery mist around the browned-out form standing motionless in front of me. As intimidated as Shir had been, I strangely felt no trepidation. Actually, I sensed no malice from this... thing... at all. I was at complete ease.
I looked back and addressed my group with assurance. "Wait here."
I stepped onto the plain, still keeping my sword in hand but not turned on. I looked at the figure sideways with interest. I couldn't discern much, only that it was shorter than I, wearing a thick, floor-length robe and had some species of medium-sized raptor perched on top of the rugged cane it gripped in its right hand. Though I didn't feel in danger, I kept my distance and gave it ample opportunity to speak first, since it seemed to be waiting for us, anyway.
After a long moment it took a step forward and said, "We've been expecting you, Mr. Landale." The low, masculine voice had little intonation, speaking calmly but very matter-of-factly. At the unexpected mention of my name, I should have dived back into Crevice, running away screaming like a coward, but I was transfixed by this mysterious apparition. I couldn't turn away, and I certainly couldn't bolt from him.
"Who are you?" I simply asked.
The figure moved to my side, away from Algol, emerging from his shadow form. His icy blue robe, trimmed in gold, looked quite warm; the wind swirling around our feet barely disturbed the heavy fabric. The robe's long bell sleeves kept his left hand hidden, but with his right hand exposed from holding his cane, it was apparent that the bony, veiny hand belonged to an older gentleman. His brown bird, to my amazement, was a tamed skytiara, a normally territorial species that had brazenly attacked us more times than I could count. It appeared unruffled by my close proximity to it; its sleepy eyes never looked once at me as it readjusted its perch whenever its master repositioned his cane. The man's eyes were obscured by the robe's oversized hood, but the rest of his face was long and quite aged, with his thin, droopy skin covered in darker splotches. Obliquely he replied, "My brethren and our master wish to see you."
Espers? The legends were true? No wonder I felt at ease...
"If you would gather your friends and follow me, I'm sure we can provide you with the answers you've been looking for," he continued, turning his back to me and gliding slowly across the ground towards a domed building with twin spires a short distance ahead. It seemed to appear out of nowhere; I certainly hadn't recalled seeing it initially, anyway. The man hadn't waited for my compliance, knowing, probably, that I was already willing to accompany him. He made a forward, sweeping motion with his cane, urging his owl to fly ahead of its human companion. The building, the man and his pet painted a very archaic picture in front of me, but I had yet to feel even an ounce of suspicion. In fact, it all seemed inexplicably familiar to me. I eagerly crouched over the canyon's edge and signaled for my group to join me.
I expected some hesitation, and sure enough, the always-cautious Dr. Sage wasn't budging. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" she asked skeptically, her arms crossed in front of her.
"It's what we came here for, right? I'm telling you," I said confidently, pointing in the direction of the building, "I can see Esper Mansion from here!"
At the mention of the building—and hopefully from my sure tone as well—the group didn't take long to scramble up the cliff to meet me. When we were convened in one cluster and facing what I believed to be Esper Mansion, I felt an overwhelming sense of resolution fill my core. I hadn't felt this certain since I first left Paseo to uncover the cause of the biohazard outbreak. I had my closest companions surrounding me and a path leading to answers in front of me. Perhaps my troubles—and Algol's troubles—would at last be put behind me.
Author's Note: Ahhhhhhh! (That's me, frustrated.) I should be writing more of my novelization, but the idea for this story came out of nowhere and I had to write it. I'm also slightly obsessed with the idea that the Espers on Dezolis were into falconry, so that made its way into this story. I have no game basis for this; I just like the picture of wizard-types with their guide birds. I don't know what the plural of "ohx" is, so I just figured it was also "ohx." All of the characters are right-handed in the game, but I decided to make Rudo left-handed. I don't know why. I can't think of anything else I should put here, so... hope everyone enjoyed!