A/N: I've been skimping on my writing for several reasons, I had surgery in December and catching up at school was hell. Anyways, I've returned now, This chapter marks the beginning of the real adventure. I'll also be editing and changing previous chapters, not a lot, but enough to flow with what I have planned. Any chapter changes will be noted at the top of each new post, so keep your eyes open!
They woke early the next morning, made a brief breakfast out of small loaves of bread that had been individually wrapped by the villagers of Testerf. Then silently the four packed up their mounts and headed out west towards the boarder of Artunus and Tiron. None of them spoke about the impending doom that was probably waiting for them, Celes especially, was not interested in discussing the immunity she would be sacrificing by going passed the boarder.
It happened sometime midday. There was an obvious change in the air, although the forest remained the same, all four knew they were in Tiron. After a few hours of talking and cheering, they had managed to get Celes speaking, virtually back to her old self. She even began to laugh. However, crossing the boarder changed everything. A shiver raced from the nape of her neck down her spine the moment they left the safety of Artunus.
"Keep an eye out for Imperials." Rydan said from the front of the group, as he was the only one who knew precisely where they were going. "They march along the boarders often to ensure unwanteds stay out of Tiron."
"Unwanteds, like Paladins you mean?" Asked Lan with a cool sort of air about him.
"By their standards, yes." Rydan nodded, "But as long as we don't act suspicious, we should be fine."
Celes mindlessly brushed a lock of hair away from her face and felt her hand graze her slave band. She shivered again and pulled the hood of her cloak closer around her temple, hoping that the shadows it created would be enough to disperse the image of the band.
"Haveen is about an hours ride from here." They reached a fork in the road and Rydan began to go left. "I'm wondering if maybe..."
"You're wondering what?" Nadia asked.
"If it would be best if you three stayed hidden, out of sight, at least while I explain the situation to my father. What with Lan being a fugitive, and Celes being a Paladin slave and Hunter being connected with the Royals... If he doesn't approve or the town is riddled with Verrai's people..."
"Or Berar." Celes said suddenly, "Rydan, what if Berar is there?"
"Who's Berar?" Lan asked.
"General Berar." Rydan explained icily, "The bastard that led the attack on Emata. He was charged with bringing Celes back." He glanced behind his shoulder to Celes who's eyes were downcast and nearly hidden beneath her cloak. "I'm sure by now he's moved back north, or perhaps to Divon. He wouldn't still be at Haveen, although some of his troops might still remain. Even more reason for you three to stay out of sight until I can ensure your safety."
"You're actually trying to protect us?" Lan whistled in mock amusement. "Shocking, perhaps you aren't such a bad person after all."
"If you keep that up, I will personally throw you to the soldiers." Rydan said, not joking.
Lan sensed the hostility and reverted to his old self. "What guarantee do we have that you won't give us up to your father?"
"He's not particularly loyal to Verrai's cause." Rydan said grimly, "Even if I did go into there with the intention of giving you lot up, he would probably throw you into the stockades at the most. He'd rather see Verrai retreat with his tail between his legs back to the north and never return."
"Still," Nadia said quietly, "I agree with Lan. I would feel better if I had some kind of guarantee that you weren't betraying us."
"Zeus!" Celes lifted her arm as she called out to her hawk. He soared gracefully to the sky, making a halfhearted landing attempt on her arm before tumbling into her lap. "You'll watch him, won't you? And make sure, if he sounds like he's giving us up, you fly back and warn us before the troops can take us away, please?"
'Of course.' Zeus said cheerfully, 'It would be my pleasure.'
"Thank you." Celes gave him a boost back into the air and looked forward, "That settles that."
Rydan was about to raise his voice and ask why Celes suddenly didn't trust him but then decided against it. "If everything goes well we should be able to spend a few nights in Haveen without fear of getting caught unless..."
"Unless?" Lan asked.
"Unless one of the Generals show up, word can travel fast through Tiron and I wouldn't be surprised if Berar caught up with us."
"Maybe this isn't a good idea." Nadia said quietly, "If it's going to be so dangerous..."
"Life is dangerous." Celes calmly replied, "This is a risk we're just going to have to take. If something goes wrong we'll go south to Port Gavelle."
"I know but It still seems...wrong." Nadia ran her hand aimlessly over Chipper's mane and heaved a sigh, "What if-"
"You need to stop being so concerned about the what if's," Lan said shortly, "And worry more about what will be's."
"You're right, I know."
The conversation ceased and an awkward wave of silence seemed to float over the group. There was no denying the tension in the group, all four could feel it and attribute it to something they or someone else had done. Lan didn't trust Rydan or his motives, Nadia felt uneasy about traveling through the land that had assisted in conquering her home, Rydan was afraid to confront his father and tell him about the three runaways that he had been traveling with and Celes... well, in her eyes, Rydan's betrothment was enough of a traitorous action to her. She didn't trust him.
'Why so bitter?' Saria asked as they trooped through the slowly thinning forest.
'I thought you couldn't read my mind,' Celes thought back with wicked amusement.
'I can,' Saria replied smugly, 'but I believe you deserve your space. So I ask again, why so bitter? You're riding stiffly, it makes my job quite bothersome.'
'I'm sorry,' Celes tried to relax but couldn't, 'The human child is betrothed.'
'Well,' Saria huffed, 'Some how I'm not surprised.'
'Why do you say that?'
'I may be a horse but I'm not an idiot, I know when a human is good looking and when he is not. He is quite a catch, I'm certain, in your world.'
'Yes,' Celes sighed, 'I suppose he is.'
'And you're bitter because...'
'I don't know, because he didn't tell me?'
'Or perhaps because you had the faintest hope that he would love you instead?'
'No, never!' Celes was shocked, 'He destroyed Emata, why would I-'
'It occurs to me,' Saria said slowly, 'That you had this conversation with the others a while ago and you defended him.'
'Well...' Celes said slowly, 'Things change.'
'Yes,' Saria snorted, 'Things do change, feelings especially. And don't tell me I'm wrong, I know, I've studied humans for some time.'
"We're almost there." The hour had slipped by more rapidly than Celes had expected, Rydan had pulled Chakin to a stop, the path ended and suddenly and slopped gently downwards into a small crescent shaped valley. "Are you three going to stay here or go into town with me?"
"Is there a Tavern?" Lan asked, "Those are generally good places to hide out."
"You see the building down there, to the right?" Rydan directed with his finger, "That's it, although it's full of unsavory people, I don't know if you three would want to go there..."
"Don't baby us." Nadia nudged Chipper forward and held her chin high, "We can deal with unsavory people as well as you can."
"Only, I don't want to deal with them, that's the thing!" Rydan urged Chakin to catch up with the princess, leaving Lan and Celes behind to trot quietly down the hill.
"I can't help feeling like we're walking into a trap." Lan whispered across the path to Celes. "It seems so..."
"Well planned?" Celes suggested, Lan nodded his head and grimaced. "I feel it too. For now we just have to trust him. I'm going to go with him to his fathers house, to keep an eye on him."
"Is that wise?" Lan's eyes burned a steady hole into Celes' soul, she shivered and angled her eyes away from him. "You're walking right into the lion's den."
"I know." She glanced up towards the thinning treetops, Zeus glided with ease in and out of twisting vines and branches, his beady eyes scanning the countryside for any sign of attackers. "But Hunter shouldn't go, if anyone realizes she worked in the palace, they might try to take her hostage. And I can't defend her nearly as well as you can. Besides, my father was old friends with Teran Conimere, I'm sure I can convince him to see things my way."
"You're betting a lot, Celes." Lan reminded her quickly, "If he has orders to have you killed, he's not going to stop..."
"You need to start thinking about what you say before you say it." Celes warned him, her blue eyes flaring as she directed a deadly gaze in his direction. "Not all Humans are the same, you're painting them all with the same brush. It isn't fair. We all know you don't like the Imperials but that is why we're doing this, we're going to find a way to stop the Verrai before his poison spreads. But if you keep acting so hostile towards Rydan, he won't want to help."
"Maybe we don't need his help..."
"And maybe we do!" Celes shunned, "Gods, Lan. This hate you keep locked inside of you will destroy you if you aren't careful. You need to move on!"
"And what if I can't?"
"You can't or you won't, which is it?" Celes demanded, "No one, Lan, no one would willingly live with hate in their life."
"What does that mean?"
"Live with hate. I see it in your eyes at times, Celes. The pain of having to work and travel with the one who helped slaughter your people."
"My people were doomed either way," Celes replied as her eyes caught the broken images of Haveen through the gaping branches of trees that brushed by. "I've learned to accept the inevitable and move on."
"Lan, look..." Celes raised her hand and pointed through the interwoven arms of the trees down the hillside to a small town. Cobblestone brick laid out beneath quaint cream and wood homes that seemed connected through bridges and overpasses that created a sort of graceful maze throughout the whole of the village. Nadia and Rydan had stopped at the edge of the slope and were waiting patiently for Celes and Lan to catch up.
"It's beautiful, Rydan." Celes whispered in awe as her eyes scanned the simple meditative scene of children racing across the threshold of the village. "It's so..."
"Picture perfect?" Rydan suggested, "It has its downfalls, like any other. A dark underbelly if you will."
"Well," Nadia said, "I don't believe you, but you seem to be convinced that the tavern is filled with unsavory sorts. Prove it."
"I will," Rydan chuckled, "After I speak with my father. You lot ought to go hide somewhere out of sight-"
"I'm coming with you." Celes nudged Saria forward with her knee and carefully pulled back on the hood of her cloak.
"It's too dangerous..." Rydan began to protest.
"I have to," Celes did not raise her voice with him, she sounded more patient than she had every other time she had spoken with him. "Your father... He knew my kin, I... need to talk to him. This isn't up for debate, Rydan."
"Fine," Rydan seemed content enough with that choice, he turned back to Nadia and Lan, "You two go to the tavern and wait for us there. If something goes wrong, we'll need to make a quick escape and the tavern is the closest to the edge of town."
"How long will you be?" Lan asked, "Just incase something goes wrong."
"No more than an hour," Rydan replied, "Any longer and word might get out about our presence here. Verrai's troops move quickly, the last thing we need is having them breathing down our neck."
"If we're not back in an hour, you both go south." Celes said quickly, "There are always ships moving from Gavelle to the islands. We'll catch up with you somehow."
"Don't let it come to that situation." Nadia said sternly, "I don't think we ought to travel in separate groups, not until we have a better grasp on what we're dealing with."
Lan cast a sidelong glance in the direction of Celes, if she noticed, she simply chose to ignore his suggestive look. She raised her eyes towards the sky where Zeus soared along the tree line, dipping over and around branches in a graceful display of aerobatics. "We should go now," she turned her attention back to the rest of the group. "It's hitting midday, we should rest soon."
"We'll meet you at the tavern in one hour," Rydan nudged Chakin into a trot, Saria followed without order close behind. "Try not to get yourselves into trouble!"
"Us?" Nadia turned to Lan, a wicked gleam shimmering in her eyes. "When have we ever gotten into trouble?"
"What were you and Lan discussing?" Once they had moved far enough out of earshot, Rydan jumped right onto the question Celes had been dreading.
"Politics." She replied calmly, "Our different opinions regarding the ethical treatment of our people."
"You don't trust me," Rydan turned his head sideways to look at her, there was a painful sort of expression hidden in eyes. "Neither of you do."
"That's not true-"
"Please, don't like to me. I'm a little wiser than you give me credit for." He exhaled through clenched teeth and turned his eyes back to the widening path. "We're supposed to travel together, Celes. We're supposed to work together, but we can't if you continue playing games."
She opened her mouth to reply but Rydan continued on. "Keep your hood up," he ordered, "Hide your slave band, just incase."
She obeyed silently and turned back to the path that was beginning to widen and flatten onto the cobblestone plateau that the village of Haveen was built upon. The whole center seemed to bustle with activity. Townsfolk traveled along the bridges that spanned around the town. Children raced around the square, dodging between the legs of Chakin and Saria without a care of being trampled. Rydan laughed brightly as a small body flung itself onto his leg and dragged him from the saddle.
"It's good to see you too, Zachariah." He carefully pulled off a young boy, no older than four or five, with fiery hair and a face splattered with freckles. "Been keeping out of trouble?"
"Ma says I've been, but that's only 'cause I stay out of her hair!" The boy turned to Celes and gave her a toothy grin, gaping holes where he had begun to lose his infancy teeth."I'm Zachariah! What's your name?"
"Zach-" Rydan shook his head as he continued laughing, "Show a little more courtesy to my guest. She is a priestess from the east."
Zachariah's eyes grew wide with amazement. He struggled with a clumsy bow, all the while keeping his head up, his eyes trained on Celes and the thin sheen of metal he could see beneath her hood. "My 'pologies, ma'am, your grace, worship..." He turned back to Rydan, "Well what am I supposed to call her?"
"Celes will do just fine," She smiled gracefully and lowered her head, "It's very nice to meet you, Zachariah."
"Zach," Rydan stepped forward before the youth could begin interrogating Celes once again. "Will you take Chakin and the Lady's mount to my family's stable please?"
"I'll give you a copper." Rydan buried his hand into the saddle bag and pulled out a gleaming copper piece. He flicked it into the air towards Zach, who caught it with exuberance.
"Yes, sir!" Zach fumbled with a salute before taking the reins of Saria and Chakin in hand and leading them into the throng of the town.
"Come," Rydan held out his arm for Celes to take, an action often done when a priestess or someone else of equally high status was being escorted somewhere. "It will be better this way if they believe you to be someone of power."
"I didn't realize Humans had the same respect for those in the Holy Order." Celes whispered under her breath as she allowed Rydan to lead her into the village, through tunnels and up stairs towards the manor he called home.
"There are a good many things you do not yet understand about Humans." Rydan replied with a polite smile, "as much as I do not know about Paladins undoubtedly."
"Perhaps we will have to teach each other."
"Perhaps we will." He stopped suddenly in front of the largest house in town, only a single story from the outside, but it stretched quite a distance all around the town, connecting with many of the tunnels and bridges. "This is it." He exhaled slowly and looked over at Celes, "How are you feeling?"
"Like I'm walking into the lions den." Celes replied without hesitation. "I'm beginning to think this wasn't such a good idea."
"My father is a reasonable man," Rydan said quickly, "He won't act irrationally unless you give him reason to. You are the daughter of Ettare Viori, he knew the man, I doubt he would really want to slaughter you fathers kin."
"He already gave the order to kill most of them."
"You're right, I'm sorry." She turned her head for a moment, just long enough to catch his eye. "Let's go then."
Rydan pushed through the front door into a pleasant home, the sweet smell of home baking and burning log fires churned together to create a warming aroma that Celes drank in. Across the room was a hunched over figure, stoking the fire with a long stick in one hand while clutching a flimsy shall around it's shoulders with another.
"Nezza," Rydan stepped forward as the elderly woman turned around, her dark eyes suddenly coming to life with a loving glow.
"Well bless my soul, we took you for being lost my boy!" She hobbled forward, tossing her stick aside and replacing it with a cane that lay on the floor. Rydan quickly embraced the elderly woman, a house keeper, Celes decided.
"I just got a little lost, that's all." Rydan grinned boyishly as Nezza slapped him across the ankles with her cane.
"That's not funny! Your father has been making funeral arrangements, no body! No body! Boy, what were we supposed to think?"
"You should have known better," Rydan scolded soothingly, "I would never be so selfish as to leave you all alone."
"You're damn right," Nezza turned suddenly, realizing there was another person present in the room. "I beg your pardon, sister." She bobbed into a surprisingly low curtsy for a woman of extended age. "Welcome to Haveen."
"Nezza, this is Sister Celes, from Ta'Raida. She healed my wounds after the battle."
"You left Ta'Raida before it burned then?" Nezza turned to Rydan and frowned, "We received word three days ago, Verrai's Imperials burned the whole temple to the ground after finding something there that wasn't supposed to be. Not a single survivor out of the whole convent but look at me. I'm babbling on about these depressing things, your father will be anxious to speak with you, both of you I'm sure. He's in his study."
The two youths followed Nezza through the living room and down a winding hall into a small ante room with two benches along the either wall and a single door which Celes could only imagine entered into the study of Teran Conimere.
"You wait here," Rydan turned to Celes and motioned towards the bench, "Until I talk to him and make sure it's alright."
Celes mutely agreed and sat down on a bench, Nezza followed suit. "I'll wait with her.""But-"
"It's fine,"Celes replied sweetly as she brushed out a stain of dirt from her white and magenta cloak. "Go on."
Rydan shrugged his shoulders reluctantly and knocked on the heavy door leading into his fathers office. After a moment, a frail voice spoke, in a way that Rydan did not recall. "Come in." He pushed through out of the ante room and carefully closed the heavy door behind himself. His father stood with his back to him, looking out the window to the streets of Haveen. The whole room seemed musty, unkempt, and darkened. Ritual black satin was draped over chairs and desks. Layers of dust had gathered over Teran's elegant library of leather bound books. He did not turn around.
"Father..." Rydan wasn't certain what to make of his fathers sudden change in personality and stature. It was as if he had somehow lost the will to continue on. "Father, I've returned..."
Teran's ears perked up, his broad shoulders pushed back, his head turned slowly in disbelief. "M-my son? I don't believe it." He took a few haphazard steps forward, hand clutched over his heart, "We took you for lost, Rydan."
"I was... held back." Rydan shifted uneasily in his spot, hoping that his father wouldn't ask any specific questions about where he had been. "You look horrible."
"Learning ones son is more than likely dead often brings a person down." Teran stepped forward and heartily embraced Rydan. "By Gods eyes, I never thought I would see your face again."
"Father," Rydan pushed his back, "We must talk immediately. It's important."
"Yes, yes of course, but first I'll pour us some drinks to celebrate!"
"No!" Rydan felt himself raising his voice, even as the hurt became evident in his fathers eyes, he continued. "No, what I have to say and ask cannot wait. I need answers now, they will determine much."
"Alright," Teran stepped hesitantly away from the decanter he was about to pour from and settled himself behind his desk. "Please, take a seat. What is bothering you?"
"Many things happened while I was gone," Rydan said quietly, sitting on the edge of the cushion. "And I'm not entirely certain how to go about asking you this..."
"Direct and to the point is often the best tactic."
"Yes, of course." Rydan inhaled sharply and closed his eyes. He could immediately envision Celes, Lan, and Hunter. All three depending on his knowledge and his loyalty. "I'm not your son, am I? Biologically that is, we are not kin."
Teran stared thoughtfully at Rydan for a moment, observing the young mans straight forward actions over his half-moon spectacles. "No," He replied finally, "You are not my biological son. You were adopted what we believe was the day after your birth."
"Where do I come from, really?"
"That, I cannot answer. We found you wrapped in a blanket on our doorsteps. Your mother immediately took a liking to you, she demanded that we keep you. I sent couriers across Tiron but none could find your real parents, so we adopted you. Rydan, why exactly do you ask?"
"Am I...Or, is there a chance...: Rydan exhaled sharply through gritted teeth. "Am I a Paladin, father?"
Teran lowered his eyes for a moment, again, no swift reply. He stood up suddenly and turned away from his son, eyes directed to the outside world where children ran gaily through the streets. "You are." He turned, "How did you find out?"
"That isn't important right now. I must know, you have been giving orders to slaughter the Paladins for as long as I can remember, I must ask, am I in dang-"
"I would never allow you to fall victim to the crimes of the Emperor." Teran sat swiftly back down and leaned forward over the desk. "You are my son..."
"And if I befriended other Paladins, would they be at risk? If I brought them here, would you have them arrested and enslaved?"
"Never," Teran shook hishead quickly, "There is much you do not yet know, my son. There is an underground, a rebellion that has been inthe works for many years. But that is for later, why all the questions? You must tell me how you learned of your true heritage."
Rydan closed his eyes and nodded slowly, "It's...almost ironic inthe way it turned out. The girl that you sent Berar and I to kill, the Paladin..."
"Did you know anything about her?"
"Nothing," Teran replied, "Only that she stood a risk to the Empire and Verrai wanted her dead. I did not want to see the whole village slaughtered but Berar was far too eager, and Verrai's intentions are deadly. I believed it was a sacrifice that was worth making if it meant the continuation of certain underground rebellions bent on toppling the Empire."
"The girl, the Paladin. We could not kill her."
"So Berar said when he returned, he said you chased after her and that was the last any ofthe Imperials saw of you both."
"It's true." Rydan nodded, "I did go after her. She said some things while I was guarding her and I had questions. She claimed there was a Paladin in our legion as her people were unable to use their powers. I began to put two and two together... The point is, she saved my life and we began to journey together, she suggested I return here and ask you about my heritage."
"And where is she now?"
"Outside," Rydan replied, "But father, if you try to send guards after her know that I will defend her with my life, I am indebted to her, and she does not deserve any more trouble from the Imperials."
"Who is she?"
"That's where is gets interesting..." Rydan wasn't certain on how to proceed. "Her name is Celes De'Viori, her father was..."
"Ettare." Teran leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, "I cannot believe it. I was told the child of Ettare died with his wife."
"It's her." Rydan confirmed, "She came with me, along with two other Paladins. Father, there is much you must know..."
"First, I want to meet her." Teran said sharply, "I want to see with my own eyes the child of my friend."
Rydan nodded and quickly stood up, three long strides brought him to the door, which he opened with more joy this time. "Celes, he wants to meet you."
"Are you-" She whispered.
"Yes," Rydan replied as he held out his hand, "Come, please."
Celes stood up and slowly followed Rydan back into the study, her head bowed the whole time to prevent any excess light fromshining on her slave band. Teran had stood upand walked tothe front of the desk, his eyes wide in amazement.
"Lower your hood, my child, and present proof that you are that who you claim to be."
Celes carefully pulled her hood back and raised her eyes, immediately catching Teran's attention with her astonishing blue iris'. His eyes took in every inch of her face, lingering for an extra moment on the slaveband that crossed her forehead. She blushed from embaressment and suddenly felt overly self conscious.
"Yes," Teran said finally, "You certainly do appear to have his blood in you, and those eyes are distinctly his, although the nose is your mothers, dainty. However, I do not consider physical features enough to determine ones lineage."
"It's fine." Celes' voice did not waiver as she reached towards her sheath and in one slick movement, removed Viori from her hip. She lay the blade flat in her palms and lowered her head, extending the sword towards Teran Conimere. "I believe you recognize this as the sword that fought along side you on the Islands during the Raids."
"It is." Teran nodded slowly, "And you are truly the daughter of Ettare Viori. My child, if he could only see you now..."
"If only he could have seen me ever, sir." Celes gently slid Viori back into her sheath and settled the folds of her cloak around it.
"Of course," Teran lowered his eyes, "His death was a great loss to us."
Rydan gave Celes a quizzical glance, one his fahter must have noticed. "Ettare and I, along with the rest of our Battalion weresent back to the Islands during the final raid, just before you were both born. Ettare died, many ofthem did in fact. I returned Viori to your mother, much to the detest of the rest of the Imperials. Paladins and Humans can certainly unite in thecause against Immortals but the minute we're off of a battle field, the war pulls us apart again."
"And unfortunately that one uniting cause has too disappeared." Celes murmured sadly, "I have heard that Verrai has learned to capture Immortals and harness them."
Teran nodded, "The process is generally the same as Paladin slaves..." He slowly reached out and carefully ran his fingers across Celes' slave band. "You are one then?"
"Branded, but never claimed." Celes replied, "A raid on our village when I was five. I escaped from the processing plant before I could be given a master."
"And so your name is still in a book somewhere." Teran nodded, "You took a great risk, coming here. Your immunity is forfeit."
"I know, sir. But it had to be done. It makes no difference now, I'm sure any determined human could have captured me long ago and enslaved me."
"Perhaps, but now your magic is reaching it's peak. You will be a great target to many."
"That's why we don't have much time." Rydan explained quickly, "Berar has left, hasn't he?"
"Two days ago," Teran nodded, "He's taken the troops up north to Firanto for supplies. Imperial soldiers are still stationed here of course..."
"Of course," Rydan turned to Celes, "He won't stay away for long, especially once word gets out that I've returned. We need to leave here as soon as possible."
"Leave?" Teran asked, "Where?"
"Anywhere but here, honestly," Celes replied. "South though, Servad."
"I think you had both better sit down and tell me from start to finish just what is going on." Teran settled back behind his desk and leaned his elbows thoughtfully on the hardwood. "From the moment you two left the Imperial camp, please."
Rydan told most of the story, with Celes filling in the many points regarding the Zindian scroll and just what precisely the four had been told about their involvement in the Greater Plan. Teran listened thoughtfully, asking questions where he felt entitled, but never raising his voice or at all sounding one sided in the Human and Paladin battle. Rydan was shocked, he had grown up hearing his father preaching about the evils of Paladins, this was a new side that he was not used to.
When at last they finished, just after the discussion with the Elder in Testerf, Teran closed his eyes and leaned thoughtfully back in his chair. IT was at that moment that Rydan realized how old his father appeared, his hair was flecked with grey, his eyes seemed somewhat dull, as if the flame had lost them long ago. When he was a child, Teran must have already been far into his adult life. How much longer, Rydan wondered, Until he is gone forever.
"I am not familiar with the Zindian scroll, certainly I have heard of it. Several times from your fathers tongue, Celes. That the scroll could be speaking of you four is quite remarkable and... I must say, not all the shocking."
"How so?" Rydan asked.
"There is clearly strong powers in both of you, I can only imagine what your friends must be like. I have never been one to try and control you, Rydan. Even as a child I saw the flame in your eyes, a restless soul. You were meant for so much more in this world than just the humble life of a soldier. I do not believe the events of the passed few weeks to be coincidence, clearly there is something more to this, and it involves all four of you. Any decision you make, my son, I will support."
"You spoke of a rebellion, Father." Rydan was curious, "What did you mean?"
"It is something that I cannot speak of here. You say your friends are at the Tavern?" Rydan and Celes nodded in unison. "Go to them, I will be there in ten minutes, from there you must prepare to leave Haveen immediately after we are done, as you said Rydan, Berar will return the minute he gets word that you are here. And now that Celes is out of Artunus, she can be bought and enslaved."
Celes and Rydan thanked Teran in unison and quickly left the study, and moved down the long hallway back towards the front doors. "Put your hood back on," Rydan ordered quickly, "He's right. This is still an Imperial town whether we like it or not. You can't risk being spotted just yet."
"I feel like a fugitive from the law." Celes murmured as she stepped back into the light of the outside world. "Rydan, are you sure we can trust him? He mayjust be setting us up..."
"Maybe," Rydan agreed, "But somehow I don't think he would do that to us."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because I know him, he has always been honest, and done what is best for the masses. He's not selfish like Verrai, and I'm certain if he thought he found a way to stop the bloodshed then he would certainly follow it."
"I hope you're right."
"So do I."
Rydan and Celes located Nadia and Lan tucked on bar stools, looking as inconspicuous as they possibly could for outsiders to the small community. It appeared as if they had managed to maintain composure and not be harassed by the seedy looking characters that surrounded them. Lan seemed unphased by most of the questionable eyes that followed them, Nadia, however, shifted uncomfortably on her bar stool and kept all comments to herself.
"Come on," Celes placed a light hand on the Princess' shoulder. "Rydan's father is coming, he's got something toshowus."
"Can we trust him?"
"Even if we can't, we'll have to for the time being."
"What did he say?" Lan asked as Rydan sat down on the stool next to him. "Are you-" Rydan nodded his head awkwardly but did not speak. "How do you feel about it?"
"I feel..." Rydan began, "I feel a little closer to who I really am. Like suddenly all my insecurities make sense and don't seem so foolish."
"It's good to have you on board." Nadia smiled brightly and patted him on the back, "I guess this means our adventure really will be starting now!"
"It sure will," Celes grinned brightly from beneath the hood of her cloak. "Somehow... well, I just can't wait. Finally a chance to go somewhere and do something important!"
"Keep your voice down," Rydan chuckled at Celes' newfound sense of adventure. "We don't want to get ourselves arrested before we even have a chance to leave Haveen."
The voices in the tavern lowered suddenly as a new presence filled the air. The four youths turned only to find Teran Conimere being directed towards them by one of the many drunks. "My father," Rydan explained to Nadia and Lan, "Stay on edge. I believe we can trust him but if we need to make a breakaway, we'll have to move fast."
"Rydan, Celes," Teran nodded quickly to his son and friend before turning to Lan and Nadia. "I am Teran Conimere, you must be Landerian De'Halvri and the one who goes by Hunter."
"Yes," Lan and Nadia chorused in unison.
"I am aware you both must find it difficult to trust me but at this moment in time you have no choice. We must move quickly before Imperials arrive. Follow me."
They filed one by one after Teran, around the bar and down a sleek back hallway that seemed hidden in the shadows. There was a staircase at the very end of the corridor which they were ushered down by Teran. It was a wine cellar. In the darkness he located a candle and quickly lit it, sending a pale glow across the floor.
"Down the trap door," he ordered. "Hurry now, no time." The youths scooted down the trap and into a brightly lit corridor. Doors lined both walls, a musty underground scent filled the air, Rydan knew they were deep beneath the village.
"Father, what is this place?"
"This is the underground base of the Tiron branch of The United Front. It is a rebellion, begun eighteen years ago by myself, Ettare Viori, and several other influential Humans and Paladins after it became clear that Emperor Verrai was going to become unstoppable."
"United Front," Nadia murmured, "I've heard about it.Back in Gardia raids took place, trying to wipe them out. I always thought they were a terrorist group."
"That is the cover we've chosen to take," Teran nodded as he began to walk forward. "The raids were actually private meetings, any new information had to be spread through the 'capture' of radicals who eventually escaped custody and moved on to the next branch. Over the years, the Front has become the only underground group to stand up against Verrai and his actions."
"And you've been helping organize this for eighteen years?" Rydan gasped, "all this time you allowed me to join the Imperials and fight against you?"
"I had to make it appear as if I supported your decision," Teran explained, "If I didn't encourage you to join the Imperials, it would be viewed as suspicious, I couldn't afford investigations to take place, the Front is fragile enough as it is."
"So you allowed him to fight his own kind?" Lan could not hide his regular disbelief. "Isn't that a bit... sadistic?"
"I suppose in a way is could be called that." Teran agreed, "I will not pretend that I did not struggle with the decision. In the end, however, I felt it best. I knew when you were older, I would be able to discuss it with you in more detail and hope that you would view it logically, not with the anger wired into you by the Imperials."
"And you said this is only the Tiron branch of it," said Celes, "How many others are there?"
"One in Artunus, one in Comin, one in Servad, and one here. That may not seem like many to you, but in reality, we've had to grow slowly so as not to raise suspicion."
"Why are you telling us all this?" Nadia asked, "Seems to me you'd want to keep it as secretive as you could."
"Because," Teran stopped in front of a door and pulled a large set of keys from his pocket. He fiddled with them for a moment before locating the right one. "We've been trying to make sense of Verrai's sudden actions for quite some time. He's becoming more violent, less timid..." Teran pushed open the door and walked through. "Rydan and Celes told me about the Zindian Scroll and the prophecy that was written upon it, and I began to piece things together."
They were standing in the center of a great room, filled top to bottom with books along every wall. In the center of the room was a map table, covered in scrolls and close up images of the different continents and kingdoms. Teran stopped in front of the table and fumbled with aged scrolls until he found the one he desired. Carefully unrolling it, he used four candlesticks to weigh down the corners and prevent it from unrolling.
"One of our agents, a Paladin not unlike yourself Celes, who was following the Priestess calling until something more interesting came along, has been pursuing the ideals of the Prophecy you spoke of for some time. She has been traveling from kingdom to kingdom, visiting the remaining temples. She has recorded down what she has learned, the parts of a tapestry, a scroll if you will, that remains constant everywhere she has gone."
"It's written in a foreign language," Nadia whispered as she gently caressed the smooth lettering.
"It is, one that I'm afraid isn't known to me. We've yet to find anyone who can read it."
"What about the Priestess?" Celes asked, "Can't she translate it?"
"She was taken by Imperials the night she returned, just after she presented me with the scroll in fact. I fear the worst for her. She spoke of a legend though, a Prophecy regarding the fate of the planet that Verrai was trying to fight against. She made mention of four separate souls that were to unite under one flag and defeat the darkness. I see now, you four are clearly those souls."
"She must have been able to recreate the entire Prophecy," Celes whispered with awe as she ran her fingers over the fine quill lettering. "This scroll must tell the entire story from start to finish."
"A pity we can't read it," Lan murmured.
"Ah, but along your journey I'm sure you will find someone who can." Teran began to carefully roll the scroll once again before tying it with a bright red ribbon. He presented it to Celes, "Take it with you, when you do finally translate it, I'm sure it will tell you everything you need to know from start to finish."
"This Front," Rydan glanced around the small library, "How extensive is it really? Will we be able to find shelter across the planet with it, or are we limited..."
"I'm afraid the Front moves too carefully for emergency shelter," Teran shook his head sadly, "However, you will be able to identify other members of it without speaking." He moved towards the left shelf and carefully removed a latched box from in between two heavy sets of books. Teran settled the box on the table and carefully lifted the lid, revealing something altogether too familiar to all four of the youths.
A heavy set medallion, with a single amber and red jewel glistening in the center and familiar markings along the edges.
"This, I believe you recognize." Teran pushed the box towards Rydan, "Take it. It is yours, it was left with you the night you were placed on our doorstep. I have noticed the same sort of medallion around both your necks," He looked over at Celes and Nadia, "the markings are slightly different, however I believe if you compare them to those written on the scroll, you will find each separate medallion matches something written there."
Celes quickly lifted her own medallion and ran her fingers over the embellishments, they were written on the scroll as well.
"I burned my hands trying to move the medallion into the box long aga," Teran chuckled. "Clearly it was only meant for you."
Rydan hesitated, his hand outstretched halfway to the box before pausing. He remembered what Celes' medallion had done to Berar, burning a hole clean through his glove, and illuminating the night, blinding him. What if this medallion wasn't meant for him?
"You'll never know if you don't try," Lan urged, as if reading his mind.
Rydan's fingertips gently brushed over the cool metal surface; they did not burn, nor did an extraordinary light suddenly burst free and consume him. The metal seemed to almost vibrate, as if it approved of him.
"Put it on," Celes smiled softly, "Don't be scared."
"I'm never scared." Rydan said pompously as he quickly pulled the chain over his head and examined the medallion in the light. "How bout that?"
"Only one more to go now," Nadia forced a bright smile and turned to Lan, "Any bright idea as to where we might find yours?"
"My home, maybe." Lan looked disheartened at the realization that he was now the only one without a medallion. "I'm a fugitive though, Comin is painfully policed."
"I would recommend moving towards Servad, as the Elder instructed you. Ta'Causin is supposed to hold many answers to Paladin legend."
"You say this will help us recognize members of the Front?" Rydan lifted his medallion, allowing it to catch the light. "How?"
"If you observe, the outer ring on each of your medallions contains the same symbols. Those were chosen to represent the Front. Many will have tattoos, necklaces, parchment, something with that specific line of wording on their person. Anyone with it will be part of the Front."
"We ought to go to the village and stock up on supplies," Nadia said quickly, "It will be nightfall soon and I don't think we ought to spend anymore time in Haveen than we have to."
"Any supplies you need are in these rooms." Teran moved back through the doorway, followed on heel by the four youths. "Food is in through that door, a cellar, weaponry and armor through the other two. Feel free to explore for some time, I will go to the stable and retrieve your mounts for a swift get away. There may be some scrolls and books that interest you, particularly you two," He turned to Celes and Nadia, eyes twinkling with private knowledge. "Leave at sundown, the Imperials will be arriving again tomorrow, you mustn't return for a few weeks at least."
"It may take us that long to return from Servad," Nadia said quietly, "Unless we have a good south wind to help us along the way."
"I have no expectations on your return," Teran replied quietly, sensing that a private moment was about to begin between Rydan and his adoptive father, the three youths went to the armory and shut the door.
"Please, Rydan, allow me to speak." Teran's eyes were heavy, had they always been so sad looking? Rydan couldn't recall, his past suddenly became a fuzzy outline of plot and scenarios that seemed to flow together without meaning. "I should have told you sooner, about your birth parents I mean, and I apologize. I was frightened, when you arrived the Front was beginning, and I recognized the symbols from Paladin legend. I knew if I was found out, you would be killed, or worse, enslaved. It was something I couldn't risk, so I raised you as Human, no outside influence. You may hate me for the lies I've been forced to tell, but you are here now, and you are here for a Greater Plan, that I have no regrets about."
"Father, you have nothing to apologize for, you did what you believed was best. How can I possibly hold ill will against you? You did what you needed to so I could live..."
"I know, but I should have..."
"Stop it." Rydan ordered sternly in a voice only used for his troops. "You have nothing to be sorry for, now stop it."
Teran cleared his throat awkwardly and lowered his gaze, "For what it is worth, I recognized the unique symbols on the medallion that came with you. When I still stood beside Verrai... I can't remember where, or what they mean, but I will certainly do everything in my power to help you find your path, my son. You will find your family some day, I'm certain."
"The only family I need it right here." Rydan replied with a weak smile, "Please don't worry about me, father. I'll be alright."
"I know you will," Teran ran a hand over his eyes, wiping away the few sparse tears that threatened him. "Now, let's find you some proper armor and weapons, you'll need them..."