A/N: Written for Kundagi/tlc010, in Final Fantasy Exchange Round 2. The prompt asked for a reversal of the usual 'men are fighters, women are healers' convention, so I jumped in with both feet and made an all-female party EXCEPT for the White Mage, who has no combat experience whatsoever and is something of a pacifist. Final Fantasy 1 fanfic is, like, a stone's throw away from original fiction, so I retro-fitted some Final Fantasy genre tropes from later games.
Caravan work was usually good. Paranoid merchants paid well, there was always plenty of downtime for dicing with the scouts and swapping news, and merchant caravans always seemed to attract the attention of goblin ambushers. Zed loved goblins. They poisoned their blades with wracking venom and, supposedly, abducted newborn babies to raise like cattle, so you never had to feel bad about killing them.
Today the sun was hotter than usual - it seemed to grow hotter every day, and there was precious little shade on the plains. The trees were sparse in the best of times, and these were not the best of times. Unpleasant as the elements could be, at least Zed was used to those. The sun and the wind and the rain were familiar, if harsh, companions on the road. The monks were a different story.
They were too quiet, for one. They spent an awful lot of time thinking, fiddling with their beads and chanting their sutras softly to themselves. Zed didn't like that - even though she knew in her head that these were holy, wholesome folk, she still found the whole process a bit eerie. And she'd seen one of the monks practicing their fighting art before they had set off, and it hadn't made much sense to her. They fought without weapons, and Dad had always said that only drunks and madmen fought with their bare hands as a matter of course, but she suspected that Dad had never known any monks. She had always heard of them as distant legends - swift as shadows, graceful as cranes, still as a pond untouched by wind - and had been a bit awed, in spite of herself, when her company signed on to guard one of their caravans.
The reality had, as always, been something of a letdown. Some of them were old and balding and fat, and some of them were reedy things with nasal voices; they all sweated like dogs and sneezed and got up to piss in the morning like regular folk, which made the otherworldly praying and meditating just that much stranger by contrast.
Creepy, and they didn't pay nearly as well as the merchants. This was turning out to be an all-around disappointing job, indeed.
"All clear!" the lookout called, for the fifth time today. Zed shaded her eyes and peered over the horizon, where the heat shimmered like oil. Not a soul on the road - not even a sign of monsters. Yes...definitely disappointing.
"You are Zed?" said a smooth voice behind her. Her fingers tightened reflexively on the hilt of her sword as she whipped around to face the newcomer. That was another thing about monks - they were too damn quiet. She hadn't even realized there was anyone else in the cart.
"Yeah," Zed said, eyeing the monk dubiously. She was small, with a round, owl-like face and a glossy black braid...Zed's immediate impression was that she could probably pick the girl up and break her over one knee, but she knew that first impressions were often misleading where monks were concerned. "What d'you want?"
"Only to see who shares my cart," the girl said. She had an unnervingly piercing stare, Zed thought, and glanced around uncomfortably. "Let us talk," the monk said.
"About what? I don't do philosophy."
The monk smiled inscrutably, like a temple idol. "I guessed," she said, and Zed got the impression she was making fun of her. Before she could interject, however, the monk moved on. "Philosophy, I have often felt, is better contemplated than discussed. Let us talk about something practical. It has been a long while since I have left my temple." She had a funny accent that Zed couldn't quite place - maybe she was a foundling, left in a basket on the doorstep of a monastery by wandering gypsies from a distant land. You heard about things like that happening.
"Are you one of the fighting monks?" Zed asked, and the girl smiled again.
"I know the arts. I have not yet been tested. You, on the other hand - you have seen many battles, have you not?"
Zed shrugged noncommittally. "No more than any other strong hand in my company. And a few less than Dad, though I'll catch up to him pretty soon." Zed glanced at the monk, who had an expression of polite interest. The temptation to test the limits of her father's reputation was irresistible. "I don't suppose you've heard of Geph Redbeard, have you?" The monk shook her head. "He once dived into a volcano and got a gem out of it," Zed said, tossing out her father's most outrageous claim. The monk shook her head again. "Ah, well. He was probably lying about that. It used to glow bright as a torch, but it went out eventually."
"Oh?" the monk said, cocking her head. She seemed interested - genuinely so, though Zed couldn't figure why a temple-bound hermit would want to hear about worldly things like gems and adventures. "Where's your father?"
"Wolves got him."
"I'm sorry," said the monk.
"Push your luck enough and it runs out sooner or later," Zed said with a slight shrug. "He drank a lot, too, even when the wolves started to go mad. Surprised it didn't happen sooner. Hey," Zed interjected suddenly, sensing that the other girl would prefer a change of subject, "Can you tell fortunes?"
It was the monk's turn to be surprised; she blinked her wide eyes slowly, like a bird. "Fortunes?" she asked.
"You know," prompted Zed. "Casting horoscopes, that sort of thing."
"It is the way of our order to study the movement of the stars, and to watch the wind for omens, but...it is a complicated art, not simple parlor tricks." The monk cocked her head again, and looked at Zed. "I don't suppose you know the date and time of your birth? That would be a start."
Zed's face fell. "Oh. I don't think even Dad knew that. He said I was turning twenty when he gave me his volcano gem, and that was..." Zed squinted, trying to calculate the intervening seasons - the passage of time was never of particular concern to her before. "Three summers before the wildfires started, I think."
"Do you have that? Your 'volcano gem'?" the monk said, with a strange sort of eagerness that struck Zed as rather sudden. "If it was a birthday present, then perhaps..."
"Yeah, I've got it," Zed said, unlacing a leather sack from her belt. Dad had carried the gem wrapped in silk, but Zed had never been particularly careful with fine things, and anyway she had quickly realized that whatever its origin, it seemed to be nigh indestructible. She dipped her calloused fingers into the sack and came out with a fist-sized, faceted shard of transparent orange crystal, shot through with crimson veins like the flesh of a living being. The gemstone caught the harsh sunlight and shattered it into glints and sparks that played off the faces of Zed and the little monk, who was staring at it with an expression akin to wonder. "Really, it used to glow," Zed said. "Not so impressive now, though. Not even sure if it's worth anything."
Much to Zed's surprise, the monk began to laugh - a clear, honest laugh that sounded like half joy and half relief. "Like calls to like!" she cried, reaching out to stroke the smooth facets lightly. "There is no need to calculate a horoscope for you, warrior. Your destiny is proclaimed across the stars and has been spoken by the greatest of sages!" Zed blinked, but the monk went on. "Have you not heard the tales? Once, men could live among the clouds and build ships to touch the roof of the sky. In that age, they lived in the light of their crystal, but that light has long since gone out."
"I don't really see what that has to do with anything..." Zed said, and the monk laughed again.
"Long ago, the people of the wind saw their crystal go dark, and their cloud-cities crashed into the sea. Now, a gem from the heart of a fiery mountain goes dark, and the land itself begins to burn. On our altar to the Winds, we kept a darkened crystal that once held an empire aloft, which we now bear to Coneria in accordance to the words of the sages. And along the way, we find it's very twin."
"Coincidence," Zed said.
"Destiny," the monk insisted. "It was prophesied that in Coneria, four shards shall be united. We followed the omens, and they have not lead us astray."
"Whatever," Zed said, with a shrug. Monks really were strange - they either talked too much or didn't talk enough. "So, this crystal of yours-"
"To arms! To arms!" the lookout shrieked, his voice carrying a sharp note of fear that set Zed's teeth on edge. "Monsters!" In a moment's time, Zed had slid her arm through her shield and leapt out of the cart as a monk outside pulled the chocobos to a stop.
"Oh, no you don't," Zed snapped as the little monk stuck her head out from the wagon's cover. "Your abbot is paying us good money to see you safely to Coneria."
"To see the other monks safely to Coneria," she said. "I, however, wish to test my skills."
Zed shrugged, but could not find it in her heart to object. The monk vaulted the edge of the cart and landed deftly on the balls of her bare feet. Zed shaded her eyes; something was cresting the hill beyond the caravan, neither wolf nor goblin but fleshy, wormlike creatures that twisted their bodies as they moved and lashed their long tendril-arms. Zed had never seen anything like them.
"Monk," she hissed, setting her shield and waiting for the creatures' approach, "what's your name? I don't want to fight next to you without knowing your name. It's bad luck."
"I am called Acolyte Rani," the monk said, with a slight bow of her head, and they rushed forward side by side, Zed bellowing a war cry and Rani silent as an owl, her long braid whipping behind her and her bare hands poised like knives.
I'm getting too old for this, Shen thought, and not for the first time. He was nearly fifty, and his eyesight wasn't what it was, and by all rights he should be back at the White Academy, teaching eager youngsters how to mend cuts and scrapes. He shouldn't have been out in the middle of nowhere, very far from his home and even farther from the White Academy, carrying a glassy bauble that more properly belonged to a temple that didn't even have the sense to keep itself from falling into the ocean.
The words of the sages had instructed the holders of these Crystals to take the shortest road to Coneria. Shen had argued that the Crystals would find their way on the road whether or not the White Academy did anything about it, seeing as this course events was written out in the stars and all, but somehow or other he had found himself out on the road anyway. Being almost - but not quite - the most senior wizard in the college came with a few downsides.
It was, they had claimed, a rather easy journey through Pravoka and towards Coneria. There, he would be meeting the red mage Valeria, whose family had been guarding the Crystal of Earth for longer than the White Academy had existed. The Crystal of Wind was held by a gaggle of monks and the Crystal of Fire had been lost for nearly a century now, so at the very least those were not his responsibility.
Well, it had been a rather easy journey, until he'd lost his chocobo. Only the most desperate of bandits would dare to attack the sacrosanct person of a white mage, but when a thief takes it upon himself to relieve an inn's stable of its animals, they rarely stop to check the identity of the owners. So, he had walked. Now he was in Pravoka, finally, and the dim Crystal he carried was making his finely tuned magical senses thrum with recognition. That shard of glass wanted something.
Shen's arrival in Pravoka had caused a bit of a stir - the town was unused to seeing wizards pass through, and apparently a red mage had recently stopped here. She was, as far as Shen could gather from the natives, attempting to keep a low profile and failing miserably at it. Red mages, of course, had never been known for their subtlety.
After an hour or so of careful detective work, Shen had found the name of an inn (the Muddy Buffoon) and a room (second floor, third door on the left), and had decided to go pay his respects to his fellow practitioner of the arts. As far as anyone knew, this red mage had gone upstairs last night and had not come down since. Maybe she was sleeping in.
Maybe this was Valeria herself, and he could end his journey early and go home.
In the back of Shen's head, that shard of sea-blue glass chirped, metaphysically speaking, and only grew more insistent as he rounded the hallway and found himself in front of the red mage's door.
Well, just knocking won't hurt, he thought. Shen pushed his spectacles back on his nose and rapped sharply on the wooden door, three times.
The bolt chain squealed in protest as it was stretched taut by someone slamming the door open from inside. Under the bolt chain, through the thin gap between the door and the frame, something bright and silver flashed quicker than Shen could see. It was only when he felt it prick at his throat that he realized it was the blade of a long steel rapier.
All right, he was wrong. Maybe knocking was going to hurt.
"Who are you?" hissed a voice from the other side of the door. A woman's voice, sharpened by what might have been fear or anger, or both at once. Shen forced himself to breathe steadily.
"Shen, Magus Third Rank of the White Academy," he managed. "Please don't kill me," he added, hopefully.
"Prove it," the voice said. "Prove you're a white mage."
For a moment, Shen considered calling the innkeeper, or the watch...but that rapier could be through his neck in less time than it took for him to shout. Instead, he cautiously slid his thumb along the edge of the blade just enough to leave a thin line of blood.
"Look," he said, holding his bleeding thumb to the open door so the woman on the other side could see. Closing his eyes, he drew a deep breath and spoke a quiet, soothing word that knit flesh to flesh.
The sword withdrew, and the bolt chain fell. "Come in," the woman said. Despite his better judgement, Shen did.
This was definitely the red mage, all right. She had abandoned her crimson doublet at some point, but had held on to the hat - the garish thing, all scarlet buckram and white feathered fluff, was carelessly tossed across her bed. A long rapier hung at her side - an affectation no pure mage would dare take up. All that was expected. The mage herself, however, was not.
After being threatened at sword point for the presumption of knocking on her door, Shen had been expecting to encounter some imposing witch, with flashing eyes and a fierce mien. Instead, he found himself faced with a girl less than half his age, who looked more lost than anything else. Something about the paleness of her eyes and the sweep of her ears suggested a drop or two of elfin blood...well, they always said that the best red mages were the ones who stood on the border between two worlds. Maybe she was older than she looked.
"Pardon me," Shen said, shifting uncomfortably. "You wouldn't happen to be Red Mage Valeria, would you?"
The girl narrowed her eyes. "No! I'm not her. Who wants to know?"
"Just...just me, I'm afraid. And, I suppose, the White Academy, in the very broadest sense." The girl began to pace. "Are...are you in some kind of trouble?" Shen said, peering at her over his spectacles.
"No! I mean..." the girl said, hastily backpedalling, "there's no trouble. I mean - I was just surprised."
Shen sighed heavily, and helped himself to a chair. The girl seemed too preoccupied to be bothered by it. "You stuck a sword at me and demanded I prove that I was a white mage because you were 'just surprised'?"
"No...well, I mean...I've had some, er, run-ins lately. With monsters." The girl bit her lip and looked sheepish. "I didn't have enough money to hire a bodyguard, so I had to be careful."
"Right," Shen said. The Crystal in his pouch was practically buzzing in his ear, demanding his attention, tugging at the edges of his mind like an insistent puppy. What was it the sages always said? Oh yes. Like calls to like. "What's your name, red mage?" Shen asked.
"...Kala," the girl said, hesitantly.
"Kala? You don't happen to be from Melmond, do you?"
The red mage's fingers tightened around the hilt of her sword. "Why?"
"Because a few years ago, I wrote a letter certifying that a radish farmer's daughter from Melmond had been found to have the talent. A farmer's daughter named Kala. And that letter..." it was Shen's turn to peer at the girl suspiciously, "...was addressed to Red Mage Valeria."
Kala tensed with an angry scowl and, for a moment, seemed to be on the verge of drawing her sword again - but she appeared, thankfully, to reconsider. Shen let out a breath that he had not realized he'd been holding.
"You can't be one of them," she muttered. "You can cast white magic. Yes, um...that was me. I'm Master Valeria's apprentice. Or was." Kala shuffled uncomfortably - an oddly childish gesture that looked slightly out of place from someone who seemed to be constantly on the verge of running him through. "I...when was the last time you saw Master Valeria, Magus Shen?"
"Me? Oh, I've never met her. She's a bit of a recluse."
"She's...changed." The girl pulled a chair up next to him and sat down on it backwards, leaning over the back of the chair. "She'd...leave her laboratory for days at a time...she wouldn't tell me where she went, and the one time I tried to follow I lost her pretty quickly. I think she was using magic to hide her tracks. This was right after the crops started to rot and the...the dead started to walk." When she spoke of the troubles in Melmond, she dropped her voice to a hushed whisper, as though she were afraid the faltering Earth Crystal might extend its entropic influence.
Right. The Earth Crystal.
"Is something wrong with Valeria, then?" Shen asked. Kala nodded, and Shen frowned. "But...I thought the High Magus was negotiating with her to bring the Earth Crystal to Coneria..."
"Do you mean this?" Kala said, hopping up from her chair. Sweeping her garish hat up from the bed, she reached into the crown and brought out a rounded, glistening shard of vivid emerald, veined like marble in chocolate brown. It twinkled in the light, and the Water Crystal chimed like temple bells.
"She sent her apprentice with the Earth Crystal?" Shen said, dumbfounded.
"Well...not exactly." Kala sat down on the edge of her bed and set her broad-brimmed hat on her head. "Master Valeria refused to teach me white magic - I think it might have had something to do with her sneaking off late at night - and, um. Well. I got angry, and I said a few things I maybe weren't exactly the right thing to say, and she threw me out." Kala pulled the brim of her hat down to hide a flush of embarrassment, trying and failing to make the gesture look natural. "I couldn't go home - my parents couldn't afford it, not with the crops dying in the ground - so, um...I ran away."
"And how did you get Valeria's Crystal?" Shen prompted.
"...I stole it."
Shen sighed. The journey to Coneria was going to be a very long one, indeed.
Behind her, Rani heard Zed scream. It sounded more like anger than pain, but when she whirled around to see, Zed was tearing her hand from the beast's mouth, her shield torn away, blood on the ground and drenching Zed's arm and staining the teeth of the monster. If the injury pained her, she made no sign - instead she drove her sword into the creature over and over again, roaring curses.
They were like no beasts that Rani had ever seen - great roiling, wormlike masses of flesh with lashing tentacles and cruel mouths of needle teeth. They were unnatural. They were not of the world.
The chocobos had died first, their screams ripping the air. Two other acolytes had followed - they dropped into their stances and hefted their staves, but the creatures swarmed over them and left them broken.
The beasts - if, indeed, they were beasts - howled like mindless things, but they fixed their paths on Rani and Zed in single-minded unison. They did not want food, nor gold, nor even sport - they wanted only to kill.
One of the warriors of Zed's company - a stout fellow with a red face and a great axe - had thought to take the monster by surprise while it fought his captain, and died in an instant with his neck broken.
It was clear that they wanted only Rani and Zed. It had only taken one death for Zed to order her soldiers to flee, and take the monks with them. They hesitated for a moment, but she repeated her orders in a barking voice that meant obey. They retreated. The monks needed no orders.
Zed drew the monsters onward, towards the bridge, and Rani followed.
She swooped in to flank the creature that faced Zed, dropping into a low stance. This was her first battle, and she would not allow herself to be afraid. Instead, she recited her forms.
Wind Sweeping Away the Clouds. The creature lashed at her, and Rani bent like a willow wand. A tendril brushed her bare ankle and stung like nettles and hot iron, but she did not permit the feeling to reach her. Crane Catches Fish. She swooped, dove, and threw all of her force behind the edge of her hand. She caught the creature behind one of its rolling eyes, and it murmured a mad, high-pitched whine. Quick-Witted Monkey. Rani's fist snapped back to her side, and the monster's mouth closed on empty air.
It was a moment's distraction, but it was enough. "Bastard! Die!" Zed spat, and brought her sword down on the creature's head. Pulpy flesh gave way, and as it fell it spewed black ichor that withered the sparse grass. Rani had never been so close to death before, and the thought made her head swim. Do not fear death, she repeated to herself. It is only the end of a great many troubles.
"You're hurt," Rani said, but Zed did not reply. She was holding her injured hand close to her now, and she made no move to pick up her shield. Grimly, Zed tore the cloak from her shoulders and began to bind the fabric tightly around her hand. The cloak was already dyed red, but Rani could still see where the blood began to seep through the makeshift bandage.
Zed had lost most of two fingers, and yet her eyes still darted to and fro, alert for ambush. Ironic, Rani thought - at the temple, the acolytes learned philosophy and ritual to teach them to fight without fear, and yet it came to this one naturally as breathing.
"I've never seen anything like that. It's because of your crystal, right?" It sounded like an accusation, and Rani was uneasy with accusations.
"It is fated," Rani said evasively. Zed swore, and spat on the ground. "The way of heroes is difficult. But have faith that we shall overcome." It was a platitude, but one that Rani felt reassuring. These beasts from beyond the world, the monsters and dark whispers that the elements had vomited up since the Crystals had gone dim...these creatures never wavered in their conviction, never once questioned their cause. Why should they, who had once walked in the Crystals' light, be plagued with doubts?
Zed didn't seem to be impressed. "I didn't sign up to be a hero. I signed up for two hundred gold, half up front." She started towards the east, but the heat of the battle had worn off and she was clearly starting to feel her wound. Her gait was unsteady, and sweat ran in rivulets down her face. "Coneria's still a day's walk away. How many more of those things are we going to have to kill? Ten? A hundred?"
"I do not know." Rani followed behind her. "Zed, the others of my order -"
"They'll be fine. My company's good enough without me, and those...worm things have no reason to track them." Hissing in pain, Zed dropped to her knees and cradled her wounded hand. "Damn! I'll lose my whole shield arm if we don't get to town soon. That thing was..."
"Unclean," Rani breathed. She knelt by Zed, looking at her maimed and bandaged arm with a growing sense of helplessness gnawing at her gut. She had been taught many things at the temple, and yet there was still so much that she did not know. She knew how to read the stars, and how to fight and to breathe and to quote the Old Masters, but how to save a wounded warrior...that was something of which she was still ignorant.
A sound, over the hills. Rani cocked her head to listen, and Zed raised one ragged red eyebrow at her. "I hear something," Rani explained.
"No...footsteps. Quick ones. Coming closer."
"Ahoy there!" a clear voice cried, and a figure crested the hill, running at a brisk pace. It was robed and hooded, its face shaded from the setting sun. Just behind that figure, another came - smaller, well-dressed, and armed. They were clearly not monsters, but neither were they ordinary travelers.
They drew closer. One was a man, the other a girl - the one in white, the other in red. "We heard noises - sounds of fighting!" cried the girl. "We came as quickly as we could."
"Thank the gods!" Zed sighed. "Just in time, white-robe."
The man hastened to Zed's side and knelt without a greeting. "What did this?" he asked, taking her hand and delicately unwrapping the makeshift bandage.
Zed winced, though the man's touch seemed gentle enough. "Hell if I know. Some kind of worm thing. Came after us like bloodhounds." The man closed his hands over the ruined flesh of Zed's fingers - flesh and blood that made Rani sick to look at, knowing that they had once been whole - and he clucked his tongue. He was not a young man...his hair was dotted with grey like a light dusting of snow.
"Gigas Worm," the man said. "It's not a beast, but more of an...emanation of a particularly powerful malevolence, if that makes any sense." His gaze shot from Rani to Zed, as though in realization, but he did not say anything.
"Are they poisonous?"
"No," the man said. "Just...foul."
"Then spare me the bedside manner and get on with it. I've got coin," Zed snapped.
"No need," the man replied. He closed his eyes, and began to murmur words in a language Rani did not understand, but that felt like a lullaby, calming and sweet. The girl watched the white mage work with the rapt attention of a student.
A man and a girl, both scholars - the girl, though young, wore the bright scarlet of a red mage - and clearly on the road to Coneria, the city of destiny, the home of the Sage Lukahn before he cast his great prophecy and went wandering. Together, they made four. The gods, Rani knew, did not make coincidences lightly.
The white mage finished his chant, and Zed held up her hand to inspect his work. Her hand was still stained with dried blood and the two fingers were still gone, but the wound itself was closed into a pale scar. She eyed the damage dubiously; the man turned to his companion and explained something in low tones.
"At least I won't have to cut it off," she said, flexing the remains of her hand experimentally. "I think I can still hold my shield, though it might take a bit of practice."
"You face your troubles with serenity," Rani said, smiling a little in spite of herself. "My abbot would commend your outlook."
"Warriors don't retire in the same condition they started," Zed shrugged. "Part of the trade. I'm lucky it was just a couple of fingers on my off-hand."
"Yes, we showed up just in time," chirped the girl. She was smiling in a peculiar way that made it look like she was keeping a secret. "Funny how that works."
The man cleared his throat, as if to silence the girl. "Forgive me," he began, "but I have not yet introduced myself. My name is Shen, Magus Third Rank of the White Academy. This is Kala, lately of Melmond, a red mage." The girl swept off her hat in an ostentatious bow. "An apprentice red mage," Shen added, and Kala frowned at him. "And you are?"
Rani bowed her head. "Acolyte Rani," she said. Since he had announced his title in full, it seemed polite to announce hers as well. "Keeper of the Winds," she added, deepening her bow.
"I'm Zed. I don't have any fancy titles, but I'm captain of the Golden Wolves. Swords for hire," she added, clenching her maimed hand again. "Though I'm not getting paid nearly enough for this."
"Have you been having...a lot of trouble with Gigas Worms? Because the Worms are created from the corruption of Earth, in response to an overwhelming desire." Shen narrowed his eyes, suspiciously. "Do you have anything that someone might want very badly? Someone powerful?"
Zed started to reply, but Rani wasn't listening. Instead, she closed her eyes and felt the earth rattle beneath her bare feet, just slightly. She bent and touched her palms to the moist soil...yes, there was something there. Something was coming. The mages must have felt it too - Shen rose to his feet slowly, and Kala had her hand on the hilt of her thin sword.
"There are more," Rani half-whispered. "Coming this way, beneath our feet. I can feel the earth trembling."
A distinct rumbling could be heard now, and Zed's sword was in her hand. Her expression was grim - the white mage, apprehensive. The young red mage showed no fear - perhaps she was as brave as Zed, or perhaps she was merely foolish. The Old Masters often pointed out the similarities.
Rani was afraid - this, she would admit to herself. Her first battle had been bitter, and the road ahead would only be harder still.
There was a noise like a thousand chattering teeth, and the ground cracked. There were more of them, this time. She dropped into a cat-like crouch and emptied her thoughts. No room for fear, no room for hesitation. Only emptiness, and reaction.
"The bridge! Get to the bridge!" Zed barked. She and Rani moved in close to cover Shen and Kala's retreat.
Moving in concert, fighting like twin lions, they walked the course that the gods had written across the vault of the heavens.
Now, they were four. Together, they could not fail.
The two women closed in front of Kala as she drew her sword with a clear, bell-like ring. She'd always loved the sound - it was a very fine rapier, and she was proud of it. As the worms bore down upon them, she felt the wind whipping through her cloak and saw the sun playing bright gold down the edge of her blade...she had never felt more like a real red mage. If only her old teacher could see her now.
The monsters surged through the earth, quickly as swimming, and screeched in rage. The tall woman with the sword - the one who had been wounded - had called for them to retreat to the bridge, but they could not hold back six of the monsters by themselves. Behind her, Shen was hesitating. Kala turned to find him staring in wide-eyed uncertainty at the snapping jaws and lashing tentacles of the Gigas Worms.
"What are you doing, Master Shen?" Kala snapped, more harshly than she intended. "Run!"
"But-" he stammered, making the beginnings of an arcane sign with his fingers, "if someone should be hurt..."
"Get the hell onto the bridge! We can hold them off there - don't worry about us!" Zed yelled, as she pulled her blade from the pulpy body of the worm. Oily ichor oozed down the length of it, but the creature still lived. It lunged at her, and she dove out of the way; instead, the creature found itself face to face with Kala.
A fatal mistake. Kala whirled, the point of her rapier struck home, and she whispered a word that seared her tongue like fire and rang in her ears.
Flame crackled along the edge of her blade, dancing orange and yellow, and the creature yowled and thrashed helplessly on the ground as it burned. The creature fell still, smoldering with a smoke that stank of burning corpses, and Kala crowed triumphantly.
"Do not drop your guard," Kala heard the monk say. "Fall back, and be wary."
They retreated, and the worms pressed forward mindlessly. Kala felt her boots touch stone cobbles, and with another step backwards she was on the bridge, side by side with the warrior and the monk. There was enough room for the three of them to fight, but the monsters were hard pressed to reach them all at once - they clambered over each other in waves, desperate to taste human blood.
"Come on, you ugly hellspawn," Kala taunted, swiping her rapier at one of the beast's thrashing tendrils. They didn't seem intelligent enough to understand insults, but just in case.
"We can't keep this up forever," Zed said, through gritted teeth, pressing back against the onrushing tide of fangs and flesh with her unsteady shield-arm.
As if on cue, one of the worms caught the monk around her ankle. She was swept off her feet and tumbled into the water with a yelp, quicker than any of them could react. It was a clear opening, and the worms took advantage of it as readily as any fencer - one of them burst like an arrow through the gap in their defense and flung itself, mouth open and dripping, at the opposite shore where Shen stood poised to pull Rani from the river, silhouetted against the darkening sky. His hood had fallen back from his face to reveal an expression of open terror. He was unarmed, and had probably never had someone raise a hand against him in his life.
There was no time to think - only to act. "Follow Rani!" Kala yelled, hoping that Zed understood, and she threw up her hands and began to chant.
It was a low murmur at first, barely more than a whisper, but power cannot stay quiet for long. The chattering of teeth and the soft, wet noise of the creature's movements against the stone faded into oblivion as magic surged through her veins and roared in her ears; her quiet spell spiraled into an ecstatic cry that split the heavens and called the lightning to her.
For one glorious moment, everything was light and sound - thunder and lightning and the great crash as the rocks cracked and sundered beneath her feet.
So that is real power, she thought dreamily, and then the light was gone and she was falling - falling, forever, into darkness and quiet.
Despite the harshness of the elements outside, Coneria remained a pleasant city. The gardens remained well-tended, the city fountains had yet to stagnate, and squadrons of knights in gleaming plate forced the monsters to keep to their forests. All in all, Coneria seemed to remain relatively untouched by the dimming of the Crystals' light, an oasis in what was on its way to becoming a wasteland. Rani attributed this to the hand of the gods and Coneria's reputation for producing learned sages; Shen, more prosaically, pointed out the city's fabled wealth.
"Will you two stop arguing," Zed said, around a mouthful of bread. As Kala and Shen had worn through their combined traveling money and Rani carried no coin, Zed had agreed to buy room and board for the four of them at the cheapest tavern they could find, though not without a certain degree of reluctance. "It's not as if this town is in perfect shape, you know. Everyone's up in arms about losing their princess, and on top of that, there's the whole bridge thing."
Kala looked sheepish and muttered an apology, but Zed waved her silent. "Nah, don't apologize. It was a great move. Probably saved our lives."
"But we're stuck here now," Shen protested. "The bridge was the only way across, short of chartering a boat, and since the winds fell still, there's very little to be had in that area." Shen had spent most of the night tending to Kala's wounds and had slept only very little; his exhaustion had the effect of making him rather morose. "We have no money, no way of getting home, and we are apparently carrying a matched set of beacons for the world's entire population of flesh-eating monstrosities."
"There's a reward for Princess Sara's safe return," Kala said. "I heard the barkeep talking about it."
"More monsters," Shen sighed. "More fighting."
"You really froze back there," Zed said, eyeing Shen dubiously. "Don't you know how to use that fancy war-hammer you've got?"
"It's not a war-hammer, it's a gavel. It's ceremonial," Shen said, and Zed rolled her eyes. "Look, I'm a healer. I took the white mage's oath when I entered the Academy, and I don't really intend to break -"
"Whatever, white-robe," Zed said. "Just as long as you keep yourself out of the way until we need patching up."
"Zed, please," Rani said, her voice gentle. Of all them, she was the only one who sat in front of a jug of water rather than wine. "There are many paths to strength."
"I like my path," Zed said. "It gets me paid, and keeps the monsters away."
"Speaking of," Kala said, her voice suddenly grave, "I've heard an awful lot of stories on the way here. Prophecies. Things like that."
"In the City of Dreams, there will be four, and each shall bear a crystal," Rani said. "They alone shall be warriors of light against the rising darkness."
"There are four of us," Kala said, grinning. "And there is a princess who needs saving."
"We are going to need the money," Zed agreed, begrudgingly. Shen only shook his head.
"It's a strange sort of heroes' journey," Shen said, "that starts with the legendary warriors flat broke and swilling what must be the worst wine on the continent."
"Do not rush too far ahead in our tale, white mage," Rani said, smiling serenely. "We are not quite heroes. Not yet."