A/N: Here's the start of The Fool's Journey. Chapter zero, if you like. The figure of Balbanes has always been mysterious and legendary, and I hope you'll agree this story'll live up to him. For now, however, he is yet to become the immensely powerful knight. Our story starts with him as a young, inexperienced man with lofty romanticized ideas of war.

As the story progresses more and more familiar characters from FFT will pop up, I have a good tally in my head of who he'll be interacting with, but I'm always happy to receive feedback and suggestions. Say, for example, if there were someone you'd like Balbanes to meet.

As for the title, it's pretty easy to figure out what it refers to, if you know what to look for. But if you do, then maybe keep it to yourself for the time being? I'm not sure if it'll play a bigger part as the story progresses, but for now let's keep it as our inside joke.

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The dry earth cracked beneath his boots. It had not rained even once for the weeks it took for the hosts of Ivalice to march to the foot of the Ordellian border-castle of Asagea, and the more faithful took the opportunity and claimed the fair weather was St. Ajora's intervention for Ivalice, but Balbanes knew that the war council was simply smart enough to have begun this offensive in the driest months of Leo. Still, some small part of him hoped Ajora was on their side of this war. That would make what came next easier.

Night had fallen for some hours now, and the small and hand-picked company Balbanes had strongly insisted in volunteering for was blindly and quietly making its way to the south curtain wall of Asagea. If the castle fell, all of Ordellia would be made vulnerable, and the armies of Ordellia would find themselves having to protect miles of territory instead of a single fortress. Surely if they could take the castle, the rest of the country would crumble shortly as well. The key to victory was momentum- they had to take the castle and press the offensive, otherwise the Ordellian counter-attack would force them to defend the castle. This would lead to an inevitable stale-mate neither side could afford.

The company commander, a grizzled dragoon named Stone, raised his right hand in a command for them to halt, and halt they did. He was a hard man and, like all great commanders, was respected for it. He then motioned for his company to form on him, saying to them in a soft voice that quietly resounded with strength

"all right boys, the wall's just up ahead, so this is the last time I'm going to allow anybody to turn back. After this, if you're with me then you're with me to the end."

Turn back! After all the effort he had spent convincing his brother and the war council that he was ready for this? Never.

Nobody else left, either.

Looking slightly satisfied, Stone continued

"All right then, let's keep this simple. For the last time, we vault the wall, get inside the main hall, and blow the gate open for the main host. By now they should be in sight of the northern gates, so that gives us an around ten minute grace period."

Then, "make me proud, Dragoons. Let's go!"

and he dashed to the foot of the wall. The guards had not noticed them yet, thankfully. Maybe Ajora was with them this moonless night. Balbanes reached the foot of the wall right after his commander, and bent his knees, bringing to mind his dragoon training

and.

he.

jumped.

For a second there was nothing but the sensation of soaring, Everything else, the war, the battle, his family, his sword, were minute details in the vast expanse of the sky. But only for a second. At the peak of his jump he drew his sword from its sheath, preparing to fall blade first on the wall guard he had singled out. Most dragoons were proponents of the lance, but Balbanes simply was better with the sword. It was said that the first dragoon George Wyrmbane preferred the sword over the lance himself, but in this particular situation Balbanes began to wish he had chosen his spear. As unlike most of his company, experienced dragoons who had dispatched squarely their targets on the same jumped they vaulted the wall with, Balbanes's target had seen him coming, and managed to pull his shield up just in time to block the blade.

A spear would have easily ripped through the shield like rotten wood, but his sword just slid off, leaving Balbanes completely vulnerable to a counter stroke- A thought suddenly ran through his head is this it? How unbecoming to die so early in the battle.

But his opponent was surprised- and the moment it took for him to regain his composure and lunge at Balbanes with his rapier was the moment the young Beoulve needed to gather his balance and parry the strike with a neat flick of his own sword.

The man was easily more than halfway decent with the sword, and certainly more experienced, but in the light of the wall's torches Balbanes could make out grey hair and tell-tale signs of age, and sure enough after a few vicious exchanges the guard visibly began to tire, relying more and more on his shield than his sword. Despite this, to Balbanes's growing frustration, he could not get past the man's guard, as the buckler kept him constantly at bay.

Still, it was simple for Balbanes to feint high to get the man to raise his shield, before dropping to a knee and cutting at the un-armored leg of the watchman. He yelped in pain as he tumbled to his knees, moaning "Yield! I yield!"

Balbanes carefully took the man's rapier, and tossed it over the high wall, and he struck the man with the flat of his blade, knocking him cold. It was then that he realized his hands were damp with sweat, and his breath fast and shallow. so soft, he chastised himself. The man was nowhere near the level of his sparring partners at the Akademy, but it took him such a great effort to put him down. Still, what a victory it had been! His heart raced with adrenaline and pride.

And then he realized the rest of his company had made their way into the inner halls already.

For a moment he was poised to sprint after them, but his father had drilled with him caution, so he stopped to check his item pouch, making sure the potions were still intact. He had filled the position of field-chemist, which some would say was the least of the company- but then he was easily the most youthful man there as well. After he was sure his potions were all well, he went and stooped down to the unconscious guard and relieved him of his shield. It was an unwieldy and unelegant thing, but he saw now why his brother was such a proponent of it, and why his father had insisted on drilling him with it.

Sword in one hand and shield in the other, Balbanes ran to the main halls, chasing after his comrades. It was a simple enough matter to follow them, as they had conveniently left behind a trail of dead Ordellian watchmen. Balbanes kept a close eye on the fallen, making sure there weren't any Ivalician soldiers amongst them. He had brought on his person phoenix feathers that could bring the most critically wounded enough vitality to stand and fight anew.

After he descended the guard tower he was faced with a long hallway, which, judging by the trail of the fallen, led directly to the main gate- and their target, the mechanism that operated it. As he ran that hallway, the beating of drums rang through the castle, and shouts of "To arms! To arms!" reverberated through the halls. It took the Beoulve a moment to realize that the alarm was for the main host approaching the Northern gates and not for them. Rounding the last corner, not for the first time, Balbanes considered the possibility that Ajora was with them tonight.

The main hall was better illuminated then the towers and the hallways, the high walls lined with torches. In the middle of the hall Balbanes jumped to see a lone knight drabbed in Ordellian colors. He's badly hurt! Balbanes thought excitedly, before noticing that the pile of bloody bodies strewn haphazardly around the strange Knight were all wearing the Lion of the Northern Sky.

The Knight was hulking over his bloody sword, at the point of exhaustion, his armor was cut up and stained deep red with fresh blood, but when he noticed Balbanes the young warrior still felt icy shivers race up his spine. He was terrified. Stopping his knees from shaking, Balbanes bravely brought his shield up.

Then commander Stone fell lance first from the upper floors of the hall, looking to impale the Ordellian Knight where he stood. And he would have, too, had the knight not lithelyslid around the lance, pivoting on his good foot.

Stone was hurt bad too- with his arm hanging limply from his side, and so Balbanes conquered his fear and sprinted to his commander's side.

"Beoulve!" It took him a moment to process that his commander had called his attention. "Sir!" he cried back.

"This is not the objective, boy! Stick to the plan. I can take this one alone." And while Balbanes knew he couldn't, he also knew that he had to follow orders. He had his flame-burst bombs, every one in Stone's party had carried enough to blow the mechanism apart, he only had to get within range and-

"Take me?" The Knight's voice was crisp, and cold. and poison, but the breath was ragged. "I think not."

He was fast. And before Balbanes could register the motion Stone was down, clutching his bleeding gut, an arc of blood shining in the torchlight of the hall, but he uttered no sound as fell. On his face was simply grim defiance, and even off his feet Stone clutched at his spear, as if he intended to stab the feet of the strange Ordellian knight.

"and as for you." Balbanes stiffened. He was alone with this man, this monster of a knight now. An entire company single-handed? How? Doubt gnawed at his sword arm, but he cast it off and leveled his blade. Eying the knight carefully, Balbanes noticed dark black fringed the usual Ordellian colors of green and white and black wolf heads were drawn on both his gauntlets. Who was he?

"Clearly you and your...soldiers were sent to open the gates from within. Are there more of you? Tell me and you walk." Taking down the others must not have been easy for him. He was obviously hurt. Maybe victory was not entirely impossible. Stall for time. Think.

"You'll never get the rest of us, and I'd sooner die than betray my country!" Balbanes said, his voice almost didn't tremble.

"You're an intelligent boy, but your bluffing is below par yet. You're the last of them, aren't you?"

"Just one company while the main host charges the main gate. Doubtless you intended to open the gates from within. How cowardly."

Blast. He had seen through him like thin film.

The Knight erupted into motion, swinging his sword, blade whistling at it cut through the air.

Balbanes instinctively brought his shield up, at this range, magic! His mind scrambled for an appropriate defense - of what kind?

Then it hit him- the red first. blinding red. then the pain. a hundred thousand little hands clawing the life out of him. a million tiny nails scraping his skin. Flies sucking the his life straight from him. Engulfing pain. It went on and on and on, and just when it seemed it would last for forever,

it stopped.

Gasping for air, he staggered back, his whole body felt weak. As if he hadn't slept for days.

The knight brought his blade up, saying

"You are strong, child. You might have made a great knight if you had the chance."

The sword went down again. Balbanes threw himself to the side, trying to get away from the attack, to avoid it somehow, but to no avail. Again it struck him, dragging him down. He fell to his knees. He forced his lungs to function, as he gasped for air. His body was heavy, so heavy. His armor choked him. His heart fluttered in his chest. Another hit like that and I'm finished. There was little pain after, but fatigue like a mountain lay heavily on his chest. He had to force his eyes to stay open.

His clouded mind knew for certain then that he had to get away, he had to make some distance, so he jumped.

He landed at the upper hall, and had to use his hands to catch himself as he touched down. The knight stood straighter, was he getting stronger? and began to race up the stairs after Balbanes, who was fumbling for one of the bottles in his pouch. The upper halls were darker, but he knew his potions well, and drank deeply of a purple concoction that tasted of butterscotch. Immediately his fatigue lifted, and the world grew lighter. He blinked, regaining his reflexes just in time to block the sword of the knight who had just caught up with him. He had to follow me up here. There's obviously a limit to that attack's range.

They exchanged swift blows in short succession, and immediately Balbanes knew he was severely outclassed. He was almost out of wild flourishes to keep his enemy off-balance, and so found himself incredibly grateful for the shield he had just picked up, using it to create distance between him and his opponent. Space enough to leap away again, but even as he leapt his opponent lunged and caught him, tagging him neatly below his left rib. If he hadn't pushed him away earlier, he would have been gutted like a fish then and there.

He landed badly where he started, crashing among the bodies of his fallen comrades. The Ordellian knight knew then that his inexperienced opponent was on the brink of defeat, as he lay there for a while, apparently regathering his strength.

But he stood well despite his injuries.

Balbanes chugged down a second potion, before pouring the rest of the contents over his bleeding side. He noticed that his opponent had stopped bleeding, too. Monk training? Balbanes considered. In his consideration, he remembered his own time as a disciple, and his master's words. "If you are faced with an attack that has no defense, run. If you cannot run, attack." He has to swing that sword down to use that skill of his, Balbanes realized.So he jumped again, but this time he jumped toward his opponent.

The Knight caught the attack with his own sword, casually parrying the younger combatant aside. He took a step back to prepare to use his sword arts, but halfway on his downswing Balbanes charged the man, catching him squarely on the chest with his shield.

The knight backpedalled, gasped for breath, and stared him down with eyes that said "You've got fire in you yet!"

Well, at least his opponent was in considerably better spirits.

Again they crossed blades. The knight stuck to a series of fast, sure movements. His sword was somehow always where it had to be at the best possible moment, always so fast and merciless, and so Balbanes was forced to respond with a series of wild slashes, ineffective but unpredictable, just what he needed to stay alive. He gave ground willingly, more than a few times taking an attack on his shield and allowing the momentum to push him backwards. But he always stayed close enough to charge in when the older combatant raised his sword high enough for the sword-art. Balbanes began to incur a series of shallow, irritating injuries. A cut on his wrist, a bruise on his arm, not enough to incapacitate him, but certainly enough to slow him down. and he was slowing down.

Abruptly, the knight pulled back, and relaxed his sword. "You fought well, boy, but you've lost this battle. Look around you and consider now where you are."

Balbanes did not have to look around to know that he was back at the far hallway. Far from the main hall, and even further from the gate mechanism he needed to bring the gates down.

"Your army is being crushed in the commitment to a senseless offensive, waiting for a gate that will not open.

After they're finished, my army will come up here. You can keep me at bay, and I commend that, but can you survive against an army? Yield now, child, and I will show you ample mercy. You lost the moment I herded you here."

Balbanes stared him down, his heart was pounding wildly in his chest. But this time, his voice did not shake, and he did not have to bluff.

Smiling, he said

"On the contrary, sir. It is I who herded you here."

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