[This work is inspired by the images, gameplay, and story of Atlus's Etrian Odyssey, as well as its sequels.]

You are more convinced than you ever have been before that Noir's theories are dripping with tripe. At the same time, it is difficult not to sympathize with genuine seeming feelings and desires.

You are eating lunch with a friend of yours, whose name is Renee. She asks you about the birds and you are forced to sheepishly mutter an answer into your sandwich. She doesn't hear you, but you both decide that that's ok and allow the matter to drop.

When she asks you if you have been reading anything interesting lately, you tell her a little bit about Ardell Noir, the teratoma, and the Yggdrasil Labyrinth. She quotes back to you the legend of the Labyrinth, written by a bard who traveled with a guild in Etria. She says it's one of her favorite poems.

You nod. Her fascination with the Labyrinth and Etria are well known all over town. Some days it seems like everyone in this place has an obsession of their own – a fire, as Noir would say, burning, consuming, revealing darkness.

"The Labyrinth swallowed all...

Innocents were stranded;

sinners drowned in the depths;

the damned vanished there.

The great power was lost to

Man, and Mother Earth turned

her back to the new world.

Only the cursed king on

his throne in the abyss

remembers the golden age."

Innocents, sinners, and the damned, huh? Noir doesn't seem to you to be like any of those things.

You finish your sandwich long before Renee is able to finish her salad. She orders dessert and asks you to stay with her while she eats it. She knows that you want to go out on an expedition into the nearby woods in an hour, that you need time to set up a stand and conceal yourself from the wildlife, so why would she do such a thing? In her eyes play scattered motes of light, bending and bickering and hinting at her double intentions.

"Read to me," she says. "Read to me aloud, from the journal."

Stallion 15, Abandoned Cave Near Ethereal Academy, Hedge Alchemist

I am Ardell Noir, hedge alchemist and outlaw. Who knew that such a reality would ever embody me? Somewhere, in another world, there is a more content Ardell Noir who heard the judgment of the Council of Seven and decided to let the matter of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth drop. He is a fool, and I hope that I never meet him.

I have stolen many things from the Academy to prepare for my trip to Etria. I have stolen food, which will buy me time to reach the nearest independent town. I have stolen books, maps, and journals which will provide me with entertainment and guidance. I have stolen money which, with luck, will grease and ease the wheels of my passage. Most importantly, I have stolen myself away from them. I am a "Hedge Alchemist" – an alchemist independent from the Academy. A dangerous thing. A rabid dog.

Still, the Academy would ignore me if those things were all that I had stolen. The Academy jails alchemists they suspect of going independent, but if an alchemist can escape before falling suspect then he is not pursued. He is arrested on sight, but the Academy's eyes are typically lethargic. The hedge alchemist has no access to the Academy's resources, you see, so he usually is not much of a threat to anyone's security.

I am an outlaw because I have stolen the "Philosopher's Stone" from the Academy and installed it into my E.N.D. The Stone makes me a sincere threat to their security.

The Philosopher's Stone is a small, purplish, mechanical device that resembles a many-faceted gem – a well cut amethyst, for example. It is the cutting edge of alchemical research and the most advanced piece of technology, perhaps, in the entire world.

The Ex Nihilo Device works like so: alchemical transmutations can be made by inputting formulas, which are codes of numbers, symbols, and letters. The codes have a mathematical structure and are based in the principles of the Great Sciences – biology, chemistry, and physics. Each code expresses a certain action in nature. Codes are extremely flexible and can be manipulated to fit almost any situation, as long as the alchemist using the Ex Nihilo Device is skilled enough.

But even if an alchemist is skilled enough to develop the code, he still may not be able to execute it. A piece of code represents a real, observable action – but, by itself, it is only capable of theory, not reality. Therefore the alchemist must contribute a part of him or herself to the equation – the Divine Spark. Effectively, an alchemist contributes his own energy to the E.N.D., which runs like a river through the valley of the code and empties into the ocean: reality.

As you can see, alchemists are creatures of poetry. It disgusts me. All of the art's flaws can be traced back to its poetries.

The Philosopher's Stone amplifies an alchemist's Divine Spark. This means that an alchemist does not need to invest as much of himself into the E.N.D. to achieve the same result. It also means that he is capable of much more powerful bursts of alchemy than a normal alchemist.

The side effects of prolonged use, so they say, are horrendous. But I am used to walking thin lines.

I cannot write for long. I must leave this cave before my pursuers discover me here. I will write again when I have reached Tillane, an independent city.

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Well, Renee tells you, that's quite a twist isn't it?

Not really, you explain. You assumed that it would happen eventually – the rebellious man hot on the trail of an imaginary conspiracy is destined to break with the establishment that he is a part of. Noir said himself that he would not be afraid to leave if that was the only way he would get to Etria.

Renee finds it romantic. You find it intriguing, and also irresponsible. Where was Bellatrix, the voice of reason, during all of this mess?

Renee snorts into her coffee. Droplets of black spray up and onto her high cheek bones and glasses.

What, you ask her, is so funny?

"You're just like him, though," she says. "You even both realize how stupid you are!"

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Stallion 27, The High Horse, Tillane, Philosopher

I wonder every day whether I am on the right path, traveling to Etria like this. I am still uncertain of what guides me – my thirst for discovery or my desire to end the Reclamation. But I have made my choice, and the time for doubting myself is over. Now is the time for action.

It is near midnight, and I am in a delightful tavern called "The High Horse" in the city of Tillane.

[There is a note here, in the margins: "Besides my own motivations, I also wonder every day about my poor cake. I couldn't take it with me and now it languishes, uneaten, in my room at the Academy! Or else it has been stolen by one of my pernicious colleagues and lies imprisoned in his or her greedy stomach! Oh sweet, sweet cake…I will miss you most of all."]

So far I have eluded my pursuers from the Academy. It's possible that they are trying to reach Etria before I do and to cooperate with the authorities there to arrest me as soon as I set foot into the village. But I have a plan for this.

I have sent a letter ahead of me, by courier bird, explaining that I have a Philosopher's Stone and that I am willing to defect to the Etrian government from Ethereal Academy. I am sure that their Radha, their city governors, will welcome me with open arms.

I have offered my services in three capacities: first, as a civil alchemist who can repair buildings and provide services to the people; second, as a combat alchemist who can work with the local guard to protect the village and further its interests; third, as an explorer who can carry the Etrian flag deeper into the Labyrinth. Since alchemists are bound to follow the orders of the Academy over all other authorities, I bring significant advantages to Etria as a hedge alchemist.

Now! You will notice that the journey to Trillane took twelve days. You may be asking yourself, "How in the world did a weak, knock-kneed alchemist carry twelve days worth of supplies?" Well, I took a scenic route through several villages. Using my stolen gold, I bought supplies in one village to hop to the next, and eventually I reached Trillane. Thus completes the first third of my journey.

I spent my days walking through woods and fields, sweating in the hot sun like a pig. I spent my nights splayed out under the stars, enjoying the cool night breeze and falling asleep to a chirping choir of crickets. Traveling is truly a marvelous experience.

Four days into my journey I reached the village of Renoir, where I stopped and stayed the night in a farmer's barn in exchange for an afternoon's worth of work. Laying in the barn, listening to the sounds of the animals breathing and groaning, I felt tremendously relaxed. A hard day's work led me to a sound sleep – or so I thought. I had the most disturbing dream, instead, which I believe was inspired by the noises of those damned animals.

In my dream, I was walking through the halls of the Ethereal Academy's art museum – a thing which does not truly exist. The architecture of the museum was a mish-mash of features of the overall Academy, but they were arranged into impossible angles and surfaces. The sounds of moaning, groaning, shifting bodies could be heard echoing off of the many angles of the ceiling, creating a wind tunnel of pained exclamations. I remember thinking to myself, "Ah-ha! So the whole museum is also an exhibit!" The architecture was quite beautiful, and unlike anything I have ever seen, but the noises were quite discomforting.

I walked through the halls of the museum, taking in the sights, until I stopped in front of a sculpture of an alchemist at practice. Her – it was a her – face was not turned towards me at first, but it soon shifted so that our eyes met. The statue wore the face of Bellatrix. As I stood, flabbergasted, wondering why she was posing as a statue, she raised her hand and caused the entire museum to explode in flames. I remember vividly feeling hot tongues of fire licking up my sides and onto my face, singing cloth and melting flesh. I woke up as Bellatrix leaned down to me, and smiled.

I avoided the Reclaimed lands as best as I could, but there was one short leg of my journey where passing through them was unavoidable. A deep and furious river winds past the small village of Trepol, and the Reclamation has taken back the land surrounding the nearest bridge. I could have made a detour and added three days to my trip, but I did not believe I would have sufficient supplies. Trepol is nearly abandoned – the locals understand that the Reclamation is encroaching upon them.

I cut a path through the forest with my alchemy, and thankfully I did not encounter much mutated wildlife. When I reached the bridge which spans the river, though, a large trout the length of three men and the width of two leapt out of the water and cleared the bridge in a single, writhing jump. I ran across the bridge quickly, fearing that I would be attacked, but luck was with me.

I had not considered the impact of the Reclamation on rivers and streams. They provide a way for mutated plants and animals to quickly move from place to place. The Reclamation could spread to cover the entire world if it were to follow a path all the way to the ocean!

Tonight, I drink to my continued luck and health. Tomorrow, I continue on my journey to end this nightmare.