A/N: Contains a partial novelization of the game's events verbatim. Sorry about that.
"Kahn! Yo, Kahn! Come on down! Hey! Can you hear me?"
Oops, there I was staring at the pastel sky, blushing with beads of crystalline morning dew while my best friend stood below, desperately trying to communicate.
"Hold on, I'm coming."
I shuffle in my stance, feeling the luxurious, plush texture of the thick clouds beneath my feet. I concentrate to summon my wings: a light bursts forth from my heart and my wings, resembling those of a swan, unfurl behind me.
True to my word, I center myself and leap off the edge with wings in tow, gliding smoothly down the current of the cloud machine before landing gently in front of Gibari.
"Pretty cool, huh? You've never been down here before, have you?"
I tilt my head back to survey the winding Cloud Passage overhead. I have traversed those clouds numerous times, but I've never been beneath them, down here at the banks of the Lesser Celestial River.
In some strange way, I suppose that is an apt metaphor for me: the cloud passage, which I am acquainted with, is rather like Sheliak. I am intimately familiar with her twists and turns, and, if I dared to look, I could make out the gleaming celestial river below the passage – admiring it from a distance, like Nashira, but never seeing it up close. Never truly understanding it, never close enough to admire the details.
I sought to change that today. We have our hearts set on travelling to Nashira to witness the first glubberfish catch of the season. I'm told that seeing the men haul in the catch is an exciting, if somewhat humbling experience. I told Uncle Ram that I wanted to know my people, and that is true, but above all else,
I wanted to take a rare glimpse into Gibari's world.
"Kahn, you've got crap all over you." Gibari reports, briskly dusting the wisps of cloud and droplets of water from my uniform.
"Yeah, I know." I let him fix my clothes for a few moments. "Don't fuss over me so much, Gib. Relax. I doubt the fishermen will care about my presentation if I'm just there informally."
"Oh… Yeah, I guess you're right."
An unmistakable pang of guilt passes his features as he pats down his pockets for the hundredth time that day.
"I told you already," I elevate my foot on a nearby rock and bend over to hitch up my stockings, "If the mirror's gone, it's gone, alright? I don't care, I mean it. Just be more mindful next time."
He heaves a sigh, a whisper of steam escaping his lips and condensing in the bitter afternoon air. "Pop is going to be pissed. Like, more than he'll already be."
"I don't plan on telling him, dolt." I laugh. "What do you take me for?"
He laughs back at me, nervously. "Well… Thanks." He's watching the torrential current of the Lesser Celestial River with some anxiety, searching for a means to cross.
"You know I'm not going to throw away our friendship over something like that." I assure him, walking up to him and slinging an arm around his shoulders, offering a brief squeeze.
"Okay." He retorts, brightening. "It's not far now. We just have to cross over this part and go up that cloud machine on that bank over there. Then, it's just a short walk home."
"I think they're following us, Gib."
We peer up in unison, at a trio of travelers briskly making their way through the Cloud Passage overhead. There is a young boy in red with dark hair, a well-dressed young lady and a queer puppet engaged in conversation.
"I dunno." He remarks, shrugging his shoulders. "Tourists? I don't really know. They're not from Nashira, that's for sure."
"They were at Elnath before, I ran past them. I think they needed to speak with me."
"What, so you're going to go and talk to them now?"
"No. If that's their agenda, they can wait." Thinking about it for a moment, if they're actively pursuing me, then perhaps their issue is more urgent than I initially surmised, but I push the thought out of my mind. "Let's go! We'll miss it if we waste any more time."
He lurches forward with the aid of his fin-like wings, effortlessly dancing over the scant stones that precariously connected the two sides of the river together, using his wings to maintain balance on the slippery surface, before leaping almost majestically into the cloud machine's stream, with me not too far behind.
We break through the cotton-candy clouds and land, nearing the end of the Cloud Passage, wings dissipating.
"Oh. We have a problem."
"What is it?"
Upon inspection, I see what it is. 'It' is an enormous gap between where we stand, and the path to Nashira.
"There isn't usually a break here, even at the worst time of year, that's why there's no machine down below." He explains, crestfallen. "Aw… We're going to miss the first catch of the season! It's a dead end! Our wings can't take us that far…"
"Like hell they can't." I shoot him a devil-may-care glance and a half-smile as I take a few, defiant strides back, laughing internally at the shocked expression on his face.
"It's only a dead end if you're dead!" I summon my wings and in one clean, quick motion, I leap off the edge, allow my wings to carry me some distance before launching myself off the back of some creature listlessly flying about, barely making the jump.
"There!" I say, flushed and out of breath, adrenaline rushing through me. "Now you try!"
"You're insane." He says that, but he flawlessly replicates my maneuver, his sheer weight sending the poor creature off to its untimely death.
As soon as his feet make contact with the cloud, I grab his wrist and break into a run, tugging him along eagerly. "Come on, come on, we're already late!"
"You really want to see this, don't you? And here I was thinking you'd brush me off when I suggested it to you in the first place."
"I've never seen anything like it. And besides, if it's important to you, I want to go with you."
"Kahn… Thank you. I want you to know that…"
His voice trails off and he stops dead in his tracks, demeanor darkening.
The village is occupied with imperial soldiers and numerous golden machina. The villagers are nowhere to be found, their vessels untouched and stationed in-port, and no evidence of a catch is present.
Something is terribly wrong.
Regardless of my best efforts, I can't stop the tumultuous shaking erupting from my core after all that has transpired. My clothes are flecked with the blood of the man I eventually came to call my uncle. My mind revisits the events with astounding rapidity – the capture at Nashira, storming the Cloudvents, having my life held hostage, the light fading from Uncle Ram's eyes with every passing moment as blood poured relentlessly from his many wounds. Gibari's pained howls ringing throughout the air and getting lost in the clouds.
I'm standing with Gibari and those strangers from earlier – Sagi, Milly, Guillo – in the audience chamber of Elnath. Oppressive silence hangs heavily in the air; you could cut through the tension with a knife.
Finally, Gibari breaks the silence. "Kahn, I, um…"
"I know, you don't have to say it."
"Then let's hurry and assemble the knights." He says, regaining his composure, an certain adamancy to his tone of voice. "We have to avenge Celsica, and Pop."
"It's all right." My voice is barely above a whisper.
"The knights will be assembled to take back the Cloudvents, and Celsica and Uncle Ram will be avenged. I promise you that." Swallowing thickly, I continue. "But, Gib… I don't need you to do it."
"What're you talking about, Kahn?"
"I don't need to give you a reason," I spit, suddenly taking on an acrimonious tone, "I order you, as your king: give up knighthood and return to Nashira."
"I'm speaking to you as your king. This is an order, Gibari." I do not mean to sound as cold as I'm sure I do, but I know there's no other way he would take me seriously.
"What the hell? I don't understand!"
I can see his eyes shimmering with tears and it almost breaks my will. He is visibly wounded and confused, and a part of me hates myself for realizing that I, loving him as I do, am the reason for his sadness.
"As you wish, sire." He murmurs, defeated in his resolve. "If that is His Majesty's bidding."
He turns away from me and makes a move to leave, offering his farewells and well-wishes to Sagi and the others. I watch those farewells with a growing sadness, realizing that this could be the last time I see him for a while, and certainly the last time I see him like this.
The majestic door swings open with ease due to his strength, but unexpectedly, he glances over his shoulder at me, gracing me with the most beautiful and appreciative smile I'd ever laid eyes on.
"Kahn! Friends forever!"
The thunderous declaration resonates throughout the chamber, and my hand instinctively moves to my chest, clutching at my clothes, feeling the vague outline of the pendant beneath my layers of clothing. An indescribable sound escapes my throat, and I can barely contain myself from dissolving into tears.
And just like that, he was gone. The grandiose doors of the audience chamber close behind him, marking the end of our friendship as we knew it with a definitive click.
Seemingly understanding what's going through my mind, Sagi, Milly and Guillo are brief in their consultation with me. Without hesitation, I pledge Diadem's aid to them and assure them that my nation will take up arms against Baelheit and contest the spread of promachination.
Satisfied with my answer, they thank me in turn and leave. I tell them that I will pray for them, and the guards escort them from Elnath.
The doors close a second time, and I am alone at last.
The unbearable weight of loneliness sets in instantaneously, careening in on my chest with the force of a thousand olifants, crushing my ribcage and hampering my breath. It was over. Things would never be the same again. No more stealing pastries from the royal kitchen before breakfast. No more upsetting bunnycats as we ran across the grassy knolls of Sheliak without a care in the world. No more joint practice, games with the other kids, the comfortable, night-time chats, the way he made me feel whole… And being endlessly confused by that strange look he gave me, from those soft brown eyes.
I somberly wonder how long it would take him before he realized why I made him leave. There was no way in this great sky that I wanted him to die full of youth as my shield, which is a distinct possibility given our current situation. I want him to be happy. Grow up. Get married. Have children. Die old and fulfilled, surrounded by friends and family, not as some bloody sacrifice for me. My father would admonish me if he were still here.
He is special to me. Beyond what mere words could ever hope to express.
I lower my head into my hands, the tears finally spilling over, heavy sobs wracking my frame.
They say that the clouds of Diadem grow dark when its knights shed tears. Surely, the clouds will be black tonight.