Hi everyone. I know it's been a long time since I posted the last chapter, but I hope you'll find it was worth it.
When I started this fic I wanted to focus on Ranma's journey, but since so many people asked about Cecil I changed my mind and I'll include his journey too. Half of the chapter is devoted to Cecil's quest for the Sand Ruby.
I know you will probably have a many questions about the changes I made to the original story and I'll explain most of it at the end of this chapter as well as answer to some anonymous reviews. I'll try and answer any further questions you might have to the best of my ability. Every signed review will get a swift answer.
Chapter 4 - Off to Fabul
What has gone before:
Ranma arrives in the nick of time to save Anna from certain death by using 'haste', a time magic spell that speeds up the user's reflexes. With the help of the new arrivals Damcyan's military succeeds in driving off the attacking army, with Tellah seriously wounding the enemy general. Unfortunately, Baron has achieved its primary goal: obtaining the Fire Crystal. The party meets Edward, the prince of Damcyan, who is also the bard who kidnapped Anna. The sage and the prince are having a heated argument, but in the end Tellah agrees to give Edward his daughter's hand in marriage if he can prove that he's worthy of such an honor. After hearing from a prisoner that Baron wants to get their hands on all four of the Elemental Crystals the party agrees to warn the other kingdoms of the impending attacks.
*Knock!* *Knock!* "Ranma? Are you up?" Kasumi asked through the thick, wooden door leading into Ranma's bedroom. Not getting an answer she turned the knob and slowly opened the door before peeking inside. She knew it was not proper behavior, but the others were already up and they had a long journey ahead of them. Yes, that was the only reason. In no way was she hoping to catch a glimpse of a handsome young man in the buff. She was not a pervert after all. The room was dark and the only thing she could hear was loud snoring coming from the bed. She approached the sleeping martial artist and shook him lightly. "Hey, get up sleepyhead. It's time."
Not getting any results she shook him harder, but to no avail. Since it would be rude to lift the mattress to throw him out of bed she decided on a gentler approach. "Raaaanmaaaaa," she whispered in his ear in a singsong voice. Get uu-uup! Akane has prepared some delicious food just for you."
The effect was instantaneous. The martial artist's eyes opened wide in shock and before Kasumi could blink he had jumped out of the bed and taken cover under it, much to the brunette's amusement.
Kasumi giggled. She felt a little bad for scaring her friend like that, but damn if it wasn't funny. She understood now why Nabiki liked doing things like that.
Ranma crawled out from under the bed and glared at the young woman. "You shouldn't make jokes about that, especially in the morning. Why did you do that?"
"Well, you wouldn't wake up, and I had to take some drastic measures," she explained. "The others are up already."
He groaned. He would have really loved to sleep some more. "That late already? Okay. I'll be ready in a few minutes," he sighed as he gathered his clothes.
Kasumi nodded and left the room. "Breakfast is waiting in the dining room, by the way," she added before closing the door.
When Ranma entered the dining room five minutes later his companions as well as Edward and Anna were animatedly talking about the journey ahead, but they hadn't touched the food yet. He figured they must have been waiting for him.
"Sorry I'm late," he apologized. "Looks like I was more tired than I thought."
He took a seat next to Kasumi and the group took that as their cue to fill their plates. It wasn't a Japanese breakfast, but the cooks definitely knew what they were doing and it was without any shame that he took several servings of ham, eggs, and a variety of cold cuts and sausages.
"So, what's the plan?" He asked after he had had his fill. "How do we get to Fabul?"
"We'll be travelling on foot since apart from a few small fishing boats, ill-equipped for the voyage, there are no other ships available," Tellah explained. "We'll have to pass over Mt. Hobs, which is probably the most dangerous part of the journey, and then cross a forest and a lot of open terrain. It should take us a day or two depending on the amount of creatures we'll have to fight."
"That long? Do you think we'll make it in time? Baron has those airships, right? They'll be there before us," Ranma stated.
"Maybe, but I don't think so," the sage speculated. "Golbez is obviously a high-ranking officer in Baron's army and apparently in charge of the whole operation. He has been wounded pretty badly and he'll need several days to recover, especially since it won't be easy to find a white mage capable of removing the effects of 'holy'; there are one or two at the most that I can think of. He'll also have to change his plans since he's obviously not an idiot and must know that by the time he's ready Fabul will have been warned of Baron's plan. No, I sure we'll have more than enough time."
"What if the fleet attacks on its own?" Kasumi asked. "Isn't that a possibility too?"
"I doubt it. I know his type," the old man stated self-assuredly. "He's an egomaniac and after being defeated his pride has taken a serious blow. He will want to deal with us himself. He's probably already making plans for our next encounter."
The companions silently mulled over his words and even Ranma couldn't help but worry at the thought of having to fight the powerful sorcerer. He was usually very confident in his skills, but he didn't know much about magic yet. He definitely would need to step up his training, especially in the magical arts.
"I'll lend you my hovercraft," Edward offered. "You'll need it to cross the shallows and it will get you to Mt. Hobs in about half an hour while on foot it would take at least six hours."
They happily accepted the offer and after leaving the dining room they returned to their rooms to pack. When they were ready to leave Edward brought them some gifts.
"I want to thank you once more for all you've done for us and I'd like you to accept these modest presents which, I hope, will help you on your journey." He waved two guards over, one of which was carrying a large box. The other one held a quiver in his hands.
"The chest contains an assortment of bottles, potions and other similar items that you'll need on your journey. We don't have powerful weapons here, but the arrows in this quiver are enchanted and since Kasumi is an archer she'll probably find some use for them."
The brunette accepted the quiver and took an arrow out of it, examining it closely. The tip was giving off a silvery white light.
"Those are holy arrows," the yet-to-be-crowned king explained. "They are very effective against the undead, a threat you'll most certainly come across when you travel over Mt. Hobs.
"But I can't accept them," Kasumi tried to give them back. "They must be very expensive."
"Nonsense," Edward waved her concerns off. "I have no need for them and they are just collecting dust here. And I can put your mind at ease; they aren't all that that expensive."
The young white mage didn't protest again and transferred the arrows from the offered quiver into her own.
Once they had stowed away the gifts they followed Edward who led them to a side area of the castle where the hovercraft was already waiting. They took their seats and the vehicle took off towards Mt. Hobbs.
Edward and Anna watched until the hovercraft was but a speck in the distance and returned inside the castle. There was a lot of work to be done other than the crowning ceremony which by itself would also take a lot of time to prepare for. It might have just been a formality but Anna insisted he went through with the ceremony anyway, if only to offer his subjects a distraction from the tragedy they had just endured.
Thirty minutes later Edward was in a meeting with Anna and his father's counselors discussing the day-to-day business as well as planning the rebuilding and fortification of the castle and, of course, the crowning ceremony.
They were debating on the date when a guard barged in unannounced.
"Your Highness!" The guard stood straight and saluted. "We've found a suspicious looking dark knight at the entrance trying to get in. He claims that he's in dire need of help. He didn't seem hostile but his armor bears the crest of Baron."
"A dark knight you say? From Baron?" The prince clenched his fists in anger. "One of those bastards has the gall to show up here again? Put him in the darkest, smelliest dungeon we have until I've decided how to deal with him. He'll pay for the others."
Anna was surprised at the venom she detected in her love's words. She had never seen this side of him and was a bit worried about his state of mind. "Calm down, darling," she took his arm in support. "Let's be rational and objective and find out what he wants first. If he's a threat or had any part in the attack we can always take measures."
"Edward was about to argue, but when he saw the pleading look in his love's eyes his anger vanished completely and he sighed heavily. "You're right, of course… like always."
"Did he look hostile or cause a commotion? Did he attack anyone?" The prince asked the guard who was awaiting further orders.
"Not at all," the man answered. "He was exhausted and sounded desperate, and if his blood-splattered and dented armor is any indication he must have been through more than a few fights before getting here."
"There weren't any dark knights involved in the attack as far as I remember," the young woman stated. "Most intriguing. Did he say what kind of help he needed?"
"I'm… I'm sorry, milady," the man apologized. "I didn't stay long enough to ask. I thought it was more important to tell you right away."
"You did well," Edward nodded in approval. "Take away his weapons and bring him to the throne room. I'll grant him an audience."
The guard bowed and quickly left to relay his liege's orders.
"Well, gentlemen, I guess that means you'll have to continue without me," the prince proclaimed. "We've made a lot of progress and I'm sure that you'll do just fine on your own, but don't forget to hand in a written report once you've finished.
"As you wish, your Highness," they bowed and after Edward had nodded at them Anna and he left the room.
The 'Fellowship of the Crystal' as Kasumi had jokingly called their group were enjoying the ride, but none more so than Kasumi herself who loved the beautiful and ever-changing landscapes of this world, especially since she could safely enjoy the sights without having to watch out for monster attacks as long as the vehicle was moving.
Her three companions were animatedly talking about the differences between both worlds, and Rydia was especially fascinated with the technological marvels that existed on Earth, like movies, planes, and TV when suddenly Tellah pointed at a rapidly approaching mountain. "There it is; Mount Hobs."
The group checked their gear and backpacks and a few minutes later the pilot dropped them off a few hundred meters away from the path leading up the mountain. He wished them luck and drove off.
The size of the mountain was awe-inspiring, but no challenge for Ranma. He was a bit worried for his companions, though. The sage wasn't in his prime any longer, Kasumi had never climbed a mountain before in her life, and Rydia was a bit young for such a strenuous trek.
Tellah noticed the pigtailed boy's reaction and alleviated his fears. "There's no need to worry. The path has been carved and shaped by magic and is very durable and safe. It has been crafted in such a way that even a novice at mountaineering won't have any problems crossing the mountain. See for yourself; the entrance is right ahead."
They followed the old man and when Ranma saw the path, he had to admit that the sage had been right. He had seen city streets that were in worse condition. The road was wide enough for four people to walk comfortably next to each other and completely free of debris. (1)
"How long will it take us to get to the other side?" Kasumi asked.
"About ten hours if we aren't slowed down by monster attacks. Unfortunately, with the large increase in monster activity lately I doubt we shall be so lucky. There is only one path and therefore no way to avoid them if we should encounter any. I have no idea what to expect and I would advise you all to keep your eyes open for danger. Ranma, you take the front and we stay behind and cover your back. We probably won't have to worry about back attacks, but we'll definitely have to look out for attacks from above as mountains are often used as breeding grounds by flying creatures. Any questions?"
They shook their heads. They had come to trust the old man's judgment.
They unsheathed their weapons and slowly followed the wide, comfortable path up the mountain. Ranma kept his attention on the road ahead while Tellah and Kasumi checked the sky for any potential threats. Even if the chance for a back attack was very low Rydia regularly turned around just to make sure. The two girls were asking the sage questions about various topics including spells and geography, and he good-naturedly answered all of them while entertaining them with anecdotes from his numerous travels and adventures. Ranma listened in on the conversation with one ear, keeping the other alert for any potential threats ahead of them. Only when a topic really interested him did he ask a question or two.
Just as the old man had reached a particularly interesting point in his story about a battle he had been in he was interrupted by a shout from Kasumi and several loud caws and the heavy fluttering of wings coming from above his head. Before the other three could look up the brunette had already released an arrow, which barely missed its intended target, a flying creature accompanied by two more, all three approaching at a very fast pace.
Two of them were identical birds of prey with mostly blue plumage. The belly was brown and the underside of the wings white with a bit of yellow. Ranma immediately recognized the last monster even if he'd never seen any outside of a movie: it was a Gargoyle. This particular specimen was huge; at least twice as large as he was and had leathery, green skin. Long horns grew from its forehead and a long, spiked tail protruded from its backside. The large batwings only added to its imposing appearance.
Ranma didn't waste any time and protectively jumped in front of his companions to shield them from the impending attack.
"MOKO TAKABISHA!" He quickly launched an attack before the enemies had reached them. The Gargoyle had been completely taken by surprise and didn't have time to take any kind of evasive action. It was a direct hit and the dazed monster dropped out of the sky like a stone and crashed heavily to the ground.
The two birds on the other hand had been fast enough to evade the ki projectile and, realizing that their prey wasn't as easy to kill as they had hoped, put on some speed and flew straight at the martial artist.
Before Ranma could react and shield his face with his arms, the creatures had already struck. One flew straight at him, ramming its sharp beak into his chest while the other clawed his face with its razor-sharp claws, leaving behind deep, heavily bleeding gashes. The force of the blows made the young man lose his footing and he fell on his butt.
The monsters disengaged and gained some altitude to launch another attack.
Rydia and Tellah didn't give them the opportunity, though, and took them out of the sky with two well-placed lightning bolts. The two charred birds didn't get up again.
Fearing for the pigtailed teen's life Kasumi dropped her weapon and rushed to his side to take care of his wounds. Using her growing powers she succeeded in healing the ugly, heavily bleeding cuts marring the martial artist's face.
Ranma tried to get up, but a sharp pain in his chest made him sit down again.
"Where are you hurt?" She asked him, checking his body for more wounds, but was unable to find any.
"That damn bird… must have cracked… or broken a rib or two," he grimaced, lungs burning with pain. "Nothing… to be worried about. I've had worse," he tried to downplay the seriousness of his condition.
The brunette wasn't fooled, though. She saw right through him, having dressed his wounds more than once after a hard fight.
She put her hand on his chest, unsure how to treat a wound that wasn't visible. Much to her surprise she got a mental picture, or rather a 'feeling' of what was wrong and her magic did the rest, mending the three cracked ribs.
Relieved that her friend was saved she relaxed, not paying attention to the Gargoyle that was slowly getting up. Crazed from the pain the creature fell into a berserker rage and was driven by a single thought: revenge against the human responsible for the pain it was going through.
The young white mage was oblivious to the danger, all of her attention concentrated on the martial artist, and didn't notice the dangerous creature slowly approaching from behind, its attention completely focused on the person in front of her.
The pigtailed teen's well-honed danger sense on the other hand immediately reacted to the threat and just as the Gargoyle raised its clawed hand to skewer him, not caring about the wellbeing of the woman shielding its prey from its righteous wrath, he grabbed Kasumi by her shoulders and pushed her to the ground, protecting her with his body.
The creature's sloppy attack completely missed its target, if only by a hair's breadth, and having exhausted all the energy it had had left after this last-ditch effort to avenge itself, the monster fell flat on its face, heavy breathing the only sign that it was still alive.
Rydia and Tellah didn't waste any time and finished it off before it could recover.
They turned towards their companions to see if they were alright and in the sage's case to give the white mage a piece of his mind for her reckless behavior, when they came upon a rather funny scene: the two otherworlders were frozen in place, Kasumi lying on her back with Ranma covering her body with his own. They were staring at each other, captivated, faces but a few centimeters apart.
"Erhem!" The old man cleared his throat. "Are we interrupting anything?"
This startled the youngsters out of their trance and realizing the compromising situation he was in, the pigtailed teen immediately rolled away from the brunette and quickly got up.
"Sorry about that, Kasumi," he apologized and offered the young woman his hand to help her get up.
"It's quite alright, Ranma," she answered with a radiant smile as she took the offered hand, a slight blush developing on her face.
Rydia watched the scene with obvious interest, but couldn't explain the slight twinge she'd felt in her chest when she had witnessed the intimate moment her two new friends had shared.
"If you are quite finished," Tellah continued, "we need to talk about the fight." He wanted to be angry at Kasumi and really tear into her, but after witnessing the tender moment between the two youths most of his anger had left him. Yes, the young woman had shown some poor judgment, and yes she could have got them all killed, but then he had to take into account that she was new at this whole adventuring business, and he couldn't really rule out the possibility that he might have reacted the same way if someone he dearly cared about had been hurt during his first adventure. However, he was the oldest of the group and the one with the most experience. It was his duty, both as a senior and the leader of the group, to see to the safety of everyone and if need be to reprimand one of his men (or woman in this case) who had made a grave mistake.
"Kasumi," he sternly looked at the young woman. "Can you tell me what you did wrong?"
She stared at her feet, feeling too ashamed to look the mage in the eyes and answered the question in a defeated tone. "I… I'm sorry. I shouldn't have panicked like that and let my feelings control me, but seeing Ranma like that was horrible. I… I was afraid I'd lose him and be left all alone in this world."
Ranma was about to open his mouth to give her some comforting words when a sudden hand gesture from Tellah made him stop.
"Kasumi! I understand your concern, and it is true that we are on a dangerous journey where one or more of us might get seriously injured if not killed," the sage explained in a neutral tone. "However, you must always think of the group first. A chain is only as strong as the weakest link, and if one of us doesn't do their job they endanger the whole group. I really don't want to scold you, and it's good that you figured out by yourself what you did wrong, but as the team leader it is ultimately I who has to make sure everyone survives. And I really want all of us to make it to Fabul safely and, hopefully, in one piece."
"I understand and it won't happen again. I promise," Kasumi confidently affirmed.
The old mage nodded with satisfaction. It looked like he had gotten through to her. "Well, not everything was bad," he patted the young woman on the shoulder. "Your quick reaction probably saved us from more serious harm. Don't feel bad about your arrow missing its target. Cockatrices are known for their excellent sight and fast reaction time. You'll have better luck next time."
"Cockatrices?" Ranma wondered aloud, trying to remember where he had heard that word before. Then it came back to him. The monster was described in a book on mythological creatures he had found in the public library. Since he regularly encountered creatures and monsters that weren't supposed to exist he had thought it would be a good idea to get more information on them. The one in the book didn't look like these ones, though. He checked his adventurer's guide and got the confirmation that these monsters were indeed Cockatrices. Thankfully they hadn't used their special ability to turn them to stone.
"Well then, shall we continue?" Tellah asked. "We have a long way ahead of us and I don't want to spend the night camping on the mountain if I can avoid it; it's too dangerous."
Trusting the old man's judgment they grabbed their packs and were off once more.
Kasumi looked one last time at the dead monsters and clenched her fists, firmly resolved to never make such a stupid mistake ever again.
They followed the trail up the mountain path in silence, in a much more subdued mood, paying close attention to their surroundings. Even Rydia, who was usually very vocal and full of life didn't say a word. A short while later they reached a bend in the road, making it impossible for them to see what was lying ahead of them. With a hand gesture Tellah motioned for Ranma to scout ahead of them and check if the coast was clear.
The martial artist complied and without making a single noise approached the bend and looked around the corner to find two skeletons aimlessly shambling about, wearing torn leather clothes and carrying rusty swords as well as two white-gray and formless, flame-like beings with grotesque faces floating in the air.
He silently crept back to the group and in a low voice informed them of his findings. Kasumi took out her monster book and gave it to Tellah who looked for the formless creatures Ranma had described.
"Are these the monsters you saw?" He asked as he pointed at a picture in the book.
The young man nodded.
"Those are Spirits; the manifestation of dead people's regrets and anger. They aren't sentient but only a projection of feelings. They are weak to holy magic and a simple healing spell should be enough to dispel them. Same goes for the skeletons which, in addition, are also weak to fire. However, they are very resistant to physical damage, so Ranma won't unfortunately be of much help in this fight."
The pigtailed teen grumbled unhappily but conceded the point. After all, the old man had a lot of experience, and probably knew what he was talking about.
"So, what's the plan?" Ranma asked.
"Very simple, actually," the sage answered. "We try to get as close as possible without them noticing us and kill them with a few healing spells before they can react. One low-powered spell should be enough for each of them."
Following Tellah's plan the group approached the monsters very carefully and once they were close enough let loose their spells, killing the two spirits and one Skeleton right away. The last Skeleton immediately turned around and attacked. Ranma easily evaded the sword strike and before the creature could react he grabbed its arm and smashed it to the ground with a shoulder throw before jumping away. The counter didn't do any damage but gave the old mage enough time to kill the Skeleton with another spell before it could retaliate.
"That was easy," Rydia cheered. "Too bad it can't always be like this."
"Yes, it's nice for a change to finish a fight quickly without anyone getting hurt," Kasumi agreed. "If we have any more fights in the future I wish they'll turn out like this one."
Ranma nodded absentmindedly. He was a rather disappointed that he had been practically useless in this battle and reviewed the whole fight, trying to come up with a way to hurt undead monsters without using magic. Then it hit him and his face suddenly lit up.
Kasumi noticed his grin and knew what that meant. He had figured something out. "You're in a good mood suddenly," she remarked.
"Yep! I think I know how to hurt the skeletons without magic. It's obvious."
"Really? How so?" Tellah asked, intrigued, always interested in learning new things.
"Simple. I'll just have to use the moko takabishi. It's made of ki; life energy.
"I don't think that's the same as holy magic," the sage frowned, rather skeptical at the concept.
"In my world there's a spiritual practice called reiki. I've seen practitioners successfully soothe wounds and even in some cases heal diseases. So it might just work with a ki blast."
The old man was still not completely convinced, but didn't want to outright dismiss the possibility. "Well, I'm not sure if it will work, but I'll let you try the next time we face undead creatures. It's always good to have alternatives."
"Hey! Look at what I've found!" Rydia excitedly called for the others and pointed at the large purse laying on the ground. She picked it up and peered inside. "WOW! That's a lot of money."
"Well done," Kasumi smiled at the young girl's enthusiasm. Oh how the young summoner reminded her of herself at that age; carefree and full of life. Unfortunately, that had changed the day mother had died. Being the oldest child she had to take care of her sisters and father, devoting much of her free time their well-being. It hadn't been easy at first, having no idea about housekeeping and house budgets. Thankfully their neighbors had helped them a lot during the first few years until she could do everything alone. Still, seeing Rydia like that she wondered how different her life would have been if her mother hadn't been taken from her. She didn't linger on those thoughts, though, since she knew that there was no use crying over spilt milk. She had more important things to consider at the moment: surviving this adventure and finding a way home.
"Are you alright?" Ranma startled the brunette out of her thoughts. "You were out of it and didn't answer."
"Yes, everything is fine," she assured. "I was just lost in thought."
"Oh, okay. That's fine then. I just wanted to tell you that we're ready to leave."
"I'm ready too," she confirmed before rejoining the group. "Let's go."
Back in Damcyan the stranger was brought to the throne room by a pair of guards who kept their halberds pointed at him while another one forced him to kneel in front of Edward and Anna.
"Your Majesty…," he started but was interrupted by a hand sign from the prince whose anger was easily discernable on his face.
"ENOUGH! Who are you? And how dare you show your face in my castle after what your kingdom has done to mine?" He growled.
Anna took the prince's hand to get him to calm down, and was relieved when some of the tension left his body.
"My name is Cecil Harvey and I need help. I've heard about the attack from the guards and I'm really sorry for your losses, but I had nothing to do with it. I didn't even know about it. I was in the Underground Waterway at the time, trying to get here as fast as possible.
"You're a soldier of Baron and yet you pretend that you didn't know about the attack? I have a hard time believing you," Edward answered mockingly.
"I knew about Baron's plan to attack Damcyan, but I nether thought they'd strike so soon. I… I haven't been to Baron in a while. I was sent on an official mission, but I fear it might have been a plot to get rid of me. I think the king doesn't really trust me any longer after I dared question his judgment on attacking Mysidia. I intend to get to the bottom of it, but for now I have a more urgent concern; my childhood friend Rosa is very sick. She has contracted desert fever and only a Sand Ruby can heal her. I came here as quickly as I could to ask if you had one. I… I don't think I could live on should she die. Please, help me. I don't care what happens to me. Punish me for the attack on your kingdom, but please help Rosa. She's innocent," Cecil pleaded.
"You really love her, don't you?" Anna asked.
"More than my life," the dark knight stated. "We grew up together and I really can't imagine a life without her in it."
"We should help him, dear," she suggested. "That sounds like true love to me."
The prince's face softened. As a bard he could read the hearts of people really well, and he intuitively knew that this man's feelings for his Rosa were genuine and that he was indeed ready to sacrifice himself for the woman he loved. "You're right; like always, Anna," he agreed and turned towards Cecil. "You can find the Sand Ruby in the Antlion Cave, which lies to the east. The ruby forms from the fluid that the Antlion secretes when it lays eggs. You'll have to go to the cave and retrieve it. I believe you when you say you had nothing to do with the attack. You may pass freely through my lands."
"We will go with you, of course," the young woman added.
"What?" Edward looked incredulously at his future queen. "But honey…" he tried to argue, but realized that it would be pointless. He knew that look. She had made up her mind and he knew that he had no chance of bringing her around. He had to try nevertheless; if he gave in too easily he'd lose all the respect his men had for him. "What about the castle? What about our people? They need me. There's so much to do yet," he sighed. "I have responsibilities."
"I know you do, but can't you feel this poor man's pain? Wouldn't you do everything in your power to help me if I were deathly sick?"
"Of course I would," Edward answered. "I love you and I would do anything in my power to help you. How can you even doubt that?"
"Then listen to your heart. You're not a callous person and I know that you love to help those in need. It's your caring nature that first attracted me to you, and I won't take no for an answer," she insisted when she saw that Edward was about to argue again. "Didn't you promise my father that you would try to change and become a brave man? Well, here's your chance. Don't worry! You'll have me by your side. You'll be perfectly safe."
"But what about my work here?" He tried to change her mind once last time. "I can't just abandon my subjects in their time of need."
"Pish posh!" She waved off his concerns. "I'm sure your advisors will do just fine even without your help. They have a lot of experience and I'm sure they have done a very good job under your father's rule."
"Yes, honey," he sighed in resignation and glared at a guard who whispered "whipped" to his neighbor.
He then addressed the guards. "Return his weapons to this man and show him back to the entrance. We'll meet him there."
"Are you really sure about this?" He asked the young woman once the guards had left. "I hope this isn't a mistake."
"Don't worry," Anna took his hands in hers and looked into his eyes. "True love is something to be cherished and worth any risk."
He nodded his head and squeezed her hands. "You're right of course. I'm so glad to have you to remind me of that every day."
Cecil tapped his foot in annoyance. He was glad that they had let him use the recovery pots. He was feeling great again and was getting antsy. He knew he was being impolite, but all his thoughts were on Rosa and the fact that every wasted moment brought her closer to death.
He was relieved when he saw the prince and his girlfriend arrive a few minutes later. He was surprised, however, to see Edward wear the traditional clothes of a bard over a leather tunic and holding a harp in his hands. Anna looked a lot more impressive. She was wearing a full set of leather armor and the confident stride in her steps and the aura of confidence she gave off were a clear statement that she meant business and probably knew how to handle the long whip attached to her belt.
"Sorry for making you wait," the prince apologized, "but we have to wait for the hovercraft to return. The Antlion Cave can't be reached on foot, but with the hovercraft it shouldn't take us more than a few minutes to reach the entrance."
"Are you the only ones going with me?" Cecil asked incredulously. "Shouldn't you take your guards with you?"
"Don't worry," Anna reassured him. "We should be more than enough to deal with any dangerous situation we might step in, and Edward has something to prove, haven't you dear?"
"Yes, sweetheart," he meekly confirmed.
They silently waited for the return of their mode of transport when the prince remembered that he had forgotten to ask a very important question. "What can you tell us about Golbez, Cecil?"
"Who?" The soldier from Baron asked in surprise, having never heard that name before.
"Golbez. The man who led the attack on the castle. He's a frighteningly powerful sorcerer, and if not for the help of Anna's father and his companions he'd probably have killed us all.
"I'm sorry, but I've never heard of him, which is worrying. I should know all of the most powerful soldiers and leaders in the army. And you say he led the attack? That's odd. I can't really imagine the king letting a total stranger lead his army. I need to get to the bottom of this."
"Your… Your Highness!" They were interrupted by a panting Bernard who was trying to recover his breath after the effort he'd put forward to reach them in time.
"What is it, Bernard?" The prince enquired with curiosity and a bit of apprehension dreading some more bad news, or why else would the usually rather calm man be that out of breath.
"Before you go, I want you have this," he handed the bard an ornate wooden box.
Edward opened the container and almost dropped it in surprise when he saw what it contained: a beautiful new harp. He immediately recognized the model as he had wanted to have one for a very long time. It was a Lamia Harp (2). They were incredibly hard to find as not many had been produced due to the difficulty of getting some of the materials needed to build one.
"Where did you get that?" He demanded. "Do you know how rare they are?"
"That I definitely know. I had to go to a lot of trouble to find one after your father asked me to buy one." Bernard lowered his head in respect for the deceased king. "I found it a few months ago and your father wanted to give it to you once you were ready to strike out on your own. Now that you know what you want to do with your life and since this journey might be dangerous I'm sure he would agree with me that this is the right moment to offer you his last gift."
The prince was moved to tears by the explanation. He'd always thought his father didn't approve of his choices in life, but learning the truth now that he was dead was almost too much to take.
"Father! I promise I'll take good care of this beautiful instrument and make you proud."
He handed Bernard his old Dreamer's Harp and carefully fastened the replacement to his belt. "Thank you for this priceless gift," he thanked his advisor and respectfully shook his hand. "I'll see you soon. Take care of the castle in my absence."
"I will," the advisor nodded.
The prince nodded back and after the group had boarded the floating vehicle they were off.
Ten minutes after leaving the castle they had already reached the mouth of the Antlion Cave. They checked their equipment one last time before entering the dimly lit cavern. It was bright enough to move around safely without having to use a lantern or torch, but not enough to see any further than about twenty meters. Therefore they advanced slowly and with caution, as they had no idea what to expect.
"The Antlion is a peaceful animal," the prince tried to reassure his companions while they were walking through the large passages that led deeper into the bowels of the cavern. "It shouldn't give us too much trouble."
"That's good to know," Cecil answered, "but it's not the Antlion I'm worried about. With the large increase in monster activity all over the world I wouldn't be surprised if some of them had taken up residence in here. It's spacious enough to offer them a lot of room."
Edward stilled for a moment, not having thought of that and became a lot more cautious, nervously looking to his left and right, expecting to be ambushed at every corner. 'And he's a prince?' the dark knight shook his head in amusement.
However, as it turned out the bard had adopted the right attitude since it was he who had spotted the monsters approaching from their left. "Look out! We're under attack."
Cecil and Anna immediately grabbed their weapons, the dark knight stepping in front of them as he was the only one wearing heavy armor.
The group of creatures approaching numbered three, all from different species.
"An Adamantoise, a Basilisk, and a Leshy," the prince identified the monsters.
The Adamantoise looked like a gigantic, light brown, armored tortoise with clawed feet and a spiked shell. Its large mouth was filled with long, pointy teeth.
The Basilisk was orange colored and a gigantic, grotesque blend of rhinoceros and rhino beetle, but a whole lot more dangerous than the animals it resembled. While it might look ridiculous the sharp teeth and two pointy horns on its forehead wear a clear sign that it was not to be trifled with.
The Leshy's humanoid torso was attached to a green, vaporous snake tail and flowing, unkempt green hair grew from its ugly head while its creepy grin and malevolent, glowing, red eyes gave it a horrifying appearance.
Cecil turned his head sideways and checked on the young couple from the corner of his eye; he nodded in satisfaction as it seemed like they knew what they were doing. Edward consulted the monster book for information while Anna cast a spell at her whip which took on a white blue hue before it became a lot more rigid and exuded a chilling cold.
"A mystic knight?" Cecil asked in surprise. "Didn't Edward say you were a black mage?"
"I am," the woman replied, "but several years ago I realized that I also had the mystic knight's ability to enchant weapons. I guess that makes me a mystic mage as my talent lies in black magic and not physical combat."
The soldier from Baron didn't have time to satisfy his curiosity as the rapidly approaching monsters had come into striking distance and he had a job to do. He swung at the Leshy with a heavy strike, but missed the main body and only cut off its left arm. The creature shrieked in pain before backing off a bit, letting the heavily armored Adamantoise take up the front line.
"Leave that one to Anna!" Edward shouted. "They are weak against ice attacks."
The mystic mage lashed out with her whip and with a skill borne out of years of experience easily wrapped it around the monster's belly. Ice was spreading out from the weapon, slowly deep-freezing the unfortunate creature, and when the young woman pulled sharply at the handle the creature snapped in two like a twig.
Cecil whistled in awe. His first impression had been right; that lady knew how to fight.
His moment of inattention had almost cost him, though, as he had only barely evaded the Basilik's charge. The behemoth was thankfully not very mobile and continued it charge for about 50 meters before it was finally able to stop.
Meanwhile, the Leshy was heavily bleeding from the stump where its arm used to be attached to, but that didn't stop it from attacking again. However, before it reached Cecil a deceptively sweet melody had left the bard's lips, accompanied by the beautiful sound of his harp, which changed into a score of spinning blades that flew into the direction of the creature, several of them cutting deeply into the monster's hide.
The Leshy was definitely on its last leg now. It was panting, bleeding from every part of its body, and could barely stand upright. Cecil quickly put it out of its misery by lopping off its head with a swift blow.
The Basilisk, although not a very intelligent creature, realized that it had no chance of winning and tried to run away. Anna's whip, however, was faster and opened a nasty gash in its flank, even if it had not been powerful enough to kill it. Edward plucked the strings of his Lamia Harp which produced a soft, soothing lullaby. Unfortunately the monster was in too much pain to be affected by the sleep spell and, in its enraged state, was almost fast enough to take Cecil by surprise.
The dark knight hadn't seen the attack coming right away, but years of experience had honed his senses to such a degree that he had unconsciously lifted his shield fast enough to avoid being impaled, but the Basislik's charge had been powerful enough to push him into the wall. He retaliated immediately, driving his sword into its chest, and when he pulled his weapon out the monster fell to the ground, dead.
"That went rather well," Edward stated. "Thankfully, no one got hurt."
"Yes, that is fortunate," Anna agreed. "We need to be careful since we don't have a healer with us and our supply of healing potions is very limited."
"It couldn't be helped," the prince regretted. "None of the white mages had recovered enough after their hard work yesterday, and it would have been too dangerous to have them use the recovery pots again."
"I'm sure we'll manage," Cecil reassured the couple. "I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical at first, but you did really well."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Anna asked dangerously, giving the soldier the evil eye. "That women are only good for cooking and raising children and don't belong on the battlefield?"
"Ah! No, no no!" the dark knight took a step back as he vehemently denied the accusation. "If you knew Rosa you wouldn't even ask that question," he muttered to himself. He then looked at his two companions and explained himself. "You see, I spent almost all my life amongst soldiers and I have never really fought together with civilians, so I was not really sure what to expect. I didn't mean to insult your skills. That was really impressive.
"Well, thank you. I've had some experience," Anna accepted his apology.
"If I may ask a question," Cecil continued, "why did you use your whip? Wouldn't it have been easier to just kill the monster with an ice spell?"
"Probably, but I wanted to save mana. Enchanting my weapon costs less mana than a spell and once I've done it I can keep the enchantment going pretty much indefinitely, as long as I concentrate on it with almost no mana drain. Since we don't know how long it will take so get the ruby, it's probably a good idea not to exhaust my mana pool.
"That makes sense," the dark knight conceded.
They continued onwards, being a lot more vigilant now that they knew about the monsters in the cave.
They encountered a small group of goblins, but the three creatures didn't pose any threat to the experienced adventurers and were dispatched before they could put up any kind of defense. The two potions the monsters had on them were gladly pilfered and added to the limited quantity the fighters had in their backpacks. They also carried a small amount of money that Edward took to help with the costs for renovating the castle; every little bit helped after all.
A bit further along they entered a new tunnel, larger than the previous ones.
"We're about halfway there now," the prince explained.
"You seem to know these caves very well," Cecil wondered. "How come?"
"I used to play a lot in these tunnels when I was younger. Back then the place was safe and free from monsters, and I had a lot of fun. I could have done without the adults keeping an eye on me, but I guess that's a necessary evil when you're royalty."
"What's that?" Anna interrupted and pointed her finger at a quartet of small blobs slowly gliding over the floor in front of them.
They approached carefully and recognized the creatures as Jellies.
"What kind are they?" Cecil asked, having never seen any of that particular color.
"Hold on," Edward grabbed his monster book and pointed it at the monsters. "Those are Yellow Jelly," he identified them. "Immune to physical attacks and their only weakness is lightning. Hmm… "
"THUNDER!" Anna shouted, obliterating the four creatures with a single powerful spell, not even giving the menfolk the time to prepare for battle.
"Quick and efficient," she smirked superiorly at her companions, making them gulp in fear. They didn't argue as the results spoke for themselves. 'Note to self. Don't get on her bad side', both thought in unison.
"Would you like me to enchant your weapon too, Cecil?" The young woman asked. "At least you'll be able to hurt the Jellies then. Who knows how many of them are lurking in these tunnels."
The dark knight agreed and Anna worked her magic. Very soon the sword was crackling with electricity and giving off a vivid, electric blue color. "The effect has a duration of about half an hour."
"That's more than enough," the prince stated. "It shouldn't take us that long to reach our destination."
"What about Edward's harp?" Cecil asked the young woman.
"That would be a waste of mana," she answered. "The harp is already affected by a very powerful enchantment, which was applied during its creation, one that is more powerful than my spell."
They encountered two more groups of monsters, another batch of Yellow Jellies, which Anna quickly killed with another lightning attack, and three Leshies, These last monsters were a bit more resistant, but apart from Edward and Cecil suffering some light wounds they were quickly put down.
"We're here," Edward exclaimed after they had left the tunnel and entered a very large room. Now we have to find it. Help me search. Antlions usually stay hidden under the sand, patiently waiting for prey, but they don't attack humans."
The companions split up and searched the ground for any signs of soil having been moved recently.
"I think I found one!" Anna called as she pointed at a spot on the ground from under which a faint burrowing sound could be heard.
"That's definitely an Antlion," Edward confirmed. "The sound they make is very distinctive."
Disturbed by the noise above its head the creature emerged from the ground, startling the adventurers due to its large size and ugliness. The repulsive, insectoid monster was earthen-colored, had big bulging eyes, and a round mouth filled with pointy teeth from which an impressive set of gigantic mandibles was protruding.
"As I told you before, there is no need to worry," the prince explained. "Antlions may not be the most beautiful creatures in the world, but they are quite tame. Here, let me show you."
Fearlessly he walked past the monster and bent down to retrieve the ruby. However, as soon as he grabbed it the Antlion pounced and trapped Edward's arm with its mandibles.
The bard cried out in pain and unsuccessfully tried to free his arm from the vice-like grip.
Anna and Cecil hadn't expected the sudden attack and were unable to react fast enough to prevent the attack from the monster. Edward's arm was bleeding profusely. The creature must have ruptured an artery.
The surprise didn't last long, however. The dark knight didn't waste another moment, and before the creature could bite off the prince's arm a heavy sword blow to its head forced it to let go of the bloody appendage.
The attack had stunned the heavily armored creature for a second or two, but apart from a shallow cut in the forehead it didn't look any worse for wear. The blow had made it angry, however, and it turned towards the source of its pain which was dragging the bard out of the danger zone.
However, before the Antlion could attack the two men it was hit by a fireball. It shrieked in pain and rolled on the ground to try and put out the flames. It managed to do so very quickly and apart from a slightly charred carapace the fire magic hadn't done much damage, but then the main purpose of the spell had been to divert the monster's attention long enough to give Cecil the time he needed to get Edward out of reach of its attacks.
Edward sat down, a good distance away from the Antlion, and chugged a potion, sighing in relief when pain receded and his wound closed up.
As soon as he had recovered he got up and joined the others who were fiercely fighting the powerful monster. He grabbed his harp, relieved that the pain was completely gone. He plucked the strings and a rippling wave of sound blades launched towards the Antlion, impacting heavily against its thick chitin-covered body, but only causing some slight damage. He frowned at the ineffectiveness of his attack and considered his options. Since physical attacks were ineffective he had to rely on his bardic talents, and he knew just the right song for the occasion. He plucked the strings again and furiously played an uplifting marching song that filled the group with a newfound strength and courage, enhancing the power of their blows and spells.
Anna made liberal use of her elemental spells now that they had reached their destination and she needn't save her mana, switching between fire, ice, and lightning spells which really did a number on the monster. Cecil had placed himself firmly in front of the mystic mage, blocking the Antlion's retaliatory strikes with his shield, while counterattacking with his sword. He had suffered a few nasty wounds from the creature's incredibly sharp mandibles, but Edward took care of that by periodically using his healing ability, a rather useful bardic talent that spreads the effects of any potion he drinks to the other members of the group.
The strategy was very effective and it didn't take them long to defeat the monster. The dark knight was about to deliver the finishing blow when he was stopped by a desperate shout from the prince.
"Don't kill it!" Edward implored.
Cecil stayed his hand and looked at the prince questioningly.
"Antlions are very rare," he explained, "and the only known creature that produces Sand Rubies. We have what we came for, so there's no reason to kill it."
The soldier from Baron shrugged unconcernedly and sheathed his sword. Since he had no intention of ever coming back to this cave it really didn't matter to him.
"We make a pretty good team, don't you think?" The bard asked the others on their way back.
"Yes we are," Anna agreed. "And you were great, darling," she leaned towards that prince and kissed him on his lips, much to his surprise. He quickly got into the spirit, though, and kissed the young woman right back. "I can't wait to tell father about your bravery."
Cecil took no notice of this as his mind was focused on another matter altogether. 'Hold on, Rosa. I'll be there very soon'.
The way back to the hovercraft was rather uneventful as they only encountered a single group of monsters: four Goblins and a Domovoi. Domovois are a breed of Goblins that are slightly stronger and more intelligent than their cousins, but no real threat to the experienced companions.
Having made quick work of the monsters they checked the bag containing the Sand Ruby one last time and having made sure it was still there they sped off towards Kaipo at full speed.
It was a tired group that left the mountain behind them after hours of travelling and fighting. (3)
"Finally," Rydia sat down on the grassy plains, barely enough energy left to do so. "I'm soooo tired. I can't walk another meter."
Kasumi joined her on the grass, just as tired as the younger girl was. "Yes, that was very exhausting. I think I'll have to practice more."
Tellah was still standing firm, but he too showed signs of exhaustion.
The only one who didn't look any worse for wear was Ranma who was used to roughing it and had crossed many a mountain on his long training journey. Yet, even if he didn't show it, all those fights had taken a lot out of him. Who'd have thought that they'd encounter that many monsters? They had fought more Gargoyles and Cockatrices, but they hadn't been as much of a challenge as the first group since they knew how to deal with them. He was hurt a few times over the course of the battles of course, but with that many healers in the group it hadn't been much of a problem.
"Let's rest for the day and continue onwards to Fabul tomorrow. It has been an exhausting day and all of us could use a good night's sleep. Ranma should take first watch since he's the least tired of us."
The pigtailed teen agreed and made himself comfortable in front of the camp fire while the others took out their tents and quickly crawled inside, falling asleep very quickly.
Ranma put two more logs into the fire and took out his monster book, reading up on the monsters they had encountered so far. It never hurts to be prepared.
ADAMANTOISE: The Adamantoise is a grotesquely large and dangerous turtle with a voracious appetite. Its spiked shell protects it from most predators and its sharp and pointy teeth can easily bite through flesh and bone. Whereas turtles are usually very slow on land, the Adamantoise's clawed feet are perfectly suited for life on the land and help it reach speeds of more than 15 km/hour for a short time, a feat which has surprised more than one careless adventurer. Although it's resistant to physical blows it is very weak against ice-based spells.
YELLOW JELLY: the Yellow Jelly belongs to the Pudding Family and is a yellow, blob-like creature whose only defining features are its two very large bulging eyes and large mouth filled with teeth. No one knows the origin of these strange creatures, but it is speculated that they are the result of magical experiments which would explain the different types of Pudding. It's not very strong, but very resistant to physical and magical attacks except against lightning spells which are very effective.
BASILISK: The Basilisk looks like a blend of rhinoceros and rhino beetle. It is weak to physical blows, but it can use its stone gaze to turn any living creature to stone. However, since it is easy to kill it usually doesn't get the opportunity to make use of this weapon. Still, adventurers should never travel without a stock of gold needles just in case.
LESHY: The Leshy is a cannibalistic monster of the Ghoul family that has a craving for human flesh. Leshies were human once until they got transformed into these grotesque creatures. It is unknown which ritual is responsible for their creation. Leshies are not very smart and mostly guided by their instincts. Unlike other Ghouls these creatures don't have any particular weaknesses, but any experienced adventurer should be able to deal with them easily.
ANTLION: Antlions are peaceful insectoid creatures that are harmless to humans as long as they are not provoked or attacked. They are invaluable to doctors as they produce the Sand Ruby, the only known cure for the dangerous desert fever. Should you ever be attacked by an Antlion be prepared for a tough fight. Their tough chitinous carapace makes them notoriously hard to kill and they have no particular weaknesses. Only a team of experienced fighters should even try.
DOMOVOI: The Domovoi are related to the common Goblin, but slightly stronger and more intelligent thant heir cousin. Just like the Goblins they are not a threat to a prepared adventurer as long as they don't attack in larger groups, a tactic they commonly use to ambush unwary travelers.
GARGOYLE: This creature is not to be mistaken for the similarly named, magically animated Stone Golem imitating its form. Whereas the Stone Gargoyle is nothing more than a mindless golem assigned to guarding treasure, dungeons, or castles, the Gargoyle is a living creature. What comes as a surprise to most people is that these winged lizard-like monsters are in fact insects (4). They are physically strong but clumsy flyers and not much of a menace.
COCKATRICE: The Cockatrice is a very swift bird of prey that mostly relies on its sharp claws and beak to injure its prey. A typical attacking strategy is to fly at its victim at full speed and either ram into them with its beak or claw at their face before taking off again for another attack should the victim still be standing. When confronted with overwhelming odds it uses its most frightening ability: Petrify, which turns any living creature to stone.
SPIRIT: Spirits aren't sentient but only a manifestation of dead people's regrets and anger. They hate the living and strive to kill any living creature in their vicinity. Being already dead it is very hard to permanently get rid of them as even if they are dispersed they reform after a while. The only way to destroy them for good is using holy magic against which they don't have any kind of resistance. Even a fledgling white mage should be able to exorcise them very easily.
SKELETON: Skeletons are the bones of dead humans that have been reanimated through necromantic magic. These aberrations are vicious, relentless fighters that are incredibly resistant to physical blows. They have no sense of self preservation and continue to attack until either they are destroyed or their prey is dead. However, like most undead creatures they are very weak against holy and fire magic.
1) You will have noticed the lack of ice blocking the road. I got rid of it because it doesn't really make any sense since in my opinion the only reasons for its presence in the game is to prevent the player from crossing Mt. Hobs too soon and to give Rydia a reason to overcome her fear of fire. Other than that the ice would prevent anyone from crossing the mountain, and I really can't imagine no one ever using the road.
2) This makes a lot more sense than putting a very expensive weapon in a treasure chest in an abandoned cave just for the person able to use it to find by chance.
3) Yes, there is no Mom Bomb fight and that is for two reasons. First, Ranma and friends cross the mountain on a different day than Cecil did in the game and secondly I'm convinced that it was Baron who created the Mom Bomb to help them deal with the monks. Since they don't encounter Yang on their way to Fabul there's no reason why the monster should be there.
4) Hard to believe but true. If you look at the Gargoyle's information in the game the monster's type is listed as insect.
I announced a lot of changes to the original story right from the start and as you can see there are some major ones in this chapter, especially Anna joining Edward on his quest.
Nothing is known about Anna's abilities so I decided to get creative. I hope you'll like what I came up with.
As for Edward, no one can argue that he was completely useless in the game. That's why I changed his abilities a bit to increase his usefulness.
Some very important things I think I need to clarify, especially for the anonymous reviewer who left the latest reviews.
1. This story takes place in a fantasy world similar to others you can find in fantasy books and it is not ruled by game mechanics. Yes, I gave the characters abilities that don't appear in Final Fantasy IV, but consider this. The characters follow a fixed route and probably don't meet everyone living in the world or visit every single existing village and town. All of the Final Fantasy games centered on the recovery of the four crystals by the warriors of light most certainly take place in a universe controlled by the same rules. Therefore I don't see a problem with adding skills and spells from other Final Fantasy games.
2. I've explained this before, but the reason I have for aging Rydia a bit is that it's not really plausible for a 7-year-old girl to be that good a fighter and have that much endurance.
I'll gladly answer any other questions you may have be it in reviews or private messages.
One last piece of information: reviews make me a happy writer.