On the outskirts of the Fertile Circle, Effera and her bandits had made camp and were enjoying a well-earned lunch after successfully escorting the Heroes of Arum.
"Here's to a job well done!" She cheered, holding up a mug. "After this, we're heading out to that bloody desert and regrouping with our mates from the north! So you better enjoy this scenery while we're here!"
"Hoorah!" They all shouted, clinking their mugs in harmony.
They had only started drinking when Effera noticed an unfamiliar presence approaching the camp. She frowned and held up a hand, and the bandits lowered their drinks and drew their weapons, standing at attention.
The unknown presence got closer...and closer...Then it went over the tents in the form of a young man, wearing a blue cloak over a white tunic and matching pants. He landed in the middle of the gathering, then stood up and brushed his blonde hair a little. He turned to Effera, giving her a polite smile.
"Hello there. I'm guessing these must be the Jackals, and you're their Queen?"
"Spot on." Effera said, drawing her sword. "Let me guess now, you're a Royal Knight?"
"Quite so. Very astute of you."
"No normal soldier has an Imperium like you bunch of pompous asses. Now then, tell me why you're here before I get my comrades here to mug you."
The knight chuckled. "Now now, no need to be hostile. I am Captain Lucius Est Spe, and I am on my way to the Sacred Tree to make sure the Heroes of Arum arrived safely and have completed their Trials."
Of course...that made sense. But Effera knew there was something off with that.
"You've never had to do this before. Just what are you playing at?'
"Well you know how recent times have been more dangerous. King Randolph decided that it would be best to check on our saviors. Please, allow me to do my duty. Or...would you rather invoke hostility?"
Well...there was nothing to argue about. And it would be bad to get the Royal Knights on their tail. So Effera lowered her weapon and huffed.
"Fine then, get outta here. And don't you dare come near our camp again."
Lucius bowed, then turned and started walking out of the camp. The bandits glowered at him, but sheathed the weapons and stood aside to let him through. Effera watched as the knight left, until he was but a shadow heading towards the Sacred Tree. She couldn't help but feel concerned for the Heroes of Arum...but she didn't know why.
After bathing in the Crystal Spring, the party got dressed and looked for a way up the tree. It came in the form of a golden leaf, at the far end of the room. In his curiousity, Terrence stepped on it, and it started to rise. He quickly hopped off in surprise, then he sighed as it went back down.
Lorica put a hand on her forehead and shook her head. Yep...as far as he came along, Terrence never seemed to change much.
"Alright, I guess we can use this. Come on everyone." She urged.
Everyone hopped aboard the leaf, and it started to take them straight up. The ground gradually faded from view as they went higher.
"So uh...how are we gonna get down later?" Terrence asked, sweatdropping.
"Maybe there's another one at the top." Cid said with a shrug.
Lorica just sat down, smiling at the glowing plants around them. She had always wanted to see the lovely nature that her father talked about, and now here it was. Just as beautiful as he described it.
Then she noticed May huddled a fair distance from everyone else. She looked rather gloomy, and her face was quite pale...Wondering what was wrong, Lorica crawled over to her.
"Hey...you doing okay?" She asked quietly.
May flinched, then looked down. "Um...I'm just thinking..."
Lorica recalled her looking like this earlier, when everyone was trying to console Aquare. Actually...he was still looking rather down. May...she looked the same way. Lorica had a thought about that...
"Is this about what Aquare said earlier?"
The Cait Sith gave her a glance, hesitating before giving an answer.
"...Yes, I suppose. I'm...scared. I'm scared of what may happen if we can't succeed...You all are the only friends I have...and I'm afraid of losing you."
So Lorica was right...her friend was feeling like Aqaure. She could understand that, the pain and fear of losing people close to you...And for May, who had no real love until recently, losing that wouls be devastating.
May...she had always been there for Lorica, even at her worst. Even with all of her attempts to keep a gap between them. So Elf couldn't let her friend go through this sorrow alone. She got closer and hugged her, trying to give some comfort.
"Don't be afraid." Lorica said. "We're all here, by your side. We all stand by each other, no matter what. We will never lose each other. Because we're all friends."
"She's right, you know." Terrence chipped in. "None of us are alone. We will always be there for each other."
"Yep!" Cid agreed. "Friends and comrades always live through the day, together!"
"Y-yes..." Aquare said quietly. "We're here...for each other."
"And that means we're here for you, May." Terrence and Lorica concluded.
May's eyes widened and shimmered, and she smiled softly.
"Thank you...everyone. I feel better now." She said. "I'll do my best for you all, from here on out."
And while that did bring relief for Lorica...she still couldn't help but feel that something was off...Like there was something that May wasn't letting out. But not wanting to make her uncomfortable, the Elf just accepted her friend's words right there.
After a little while, the party approached a hole at the top of the tree. They stood up, ready to see what waited for them. The leaf stopped as it went through the hole, and they hopped off and looked around.
They were on the platform they had seen earlier, sitting atop the tree and surrounded by rather large branches. The floor of the platform was decorated with gold lines that formed a seven-point star. Each tip of the star pointed at one of the large branches that surrounded the platform, including the two that were destroyed Infernius fifteen years ago.
Seeing those ashen remains of wood made Lorica's blood boil. To dare ruin such a beautiful creation...it was blasphemy, especially for an Elf.
"Infernius will pay for this." She grumbled, crossing her arms.
Terrence stepped over to the point that had a Light element symbol, and he looked up the pathway carved onto the corresponding branch.
"So we'll be splitting up from here." He concluded, looking uncertain. "We really have to do these things alone...Honestly, I'm not sure if I can do this."
Cid came over and pat his back, grinning encouragingly.
"You've been training all this time. I believe in you." He said.
Lorica smiled slightly as she went over to put a hand on the Human's shoulder. She saw how far he had come along. And even though Terrence was still a bit of a clumsy oaf, she believed he could hold himself now.
"You can do this, I know it." She assured. "Just do your best out there, alright?"
"Y-yeah!" He said with a wry smile. "I got this. Well...good luck, everyone. See you later."
With that, he jogged up the tree branch, toward the glowing shrine at the end.
"I'm gonna come out of this, stronger than ever!" Cid boasted. "Just you wait and see! Ha ha ha!"
He found the point with the Fire symbol, and he jogged along that path.
"Well...see you on the other side." Aquare murmured, slowly walking to his shrine.
May shuffled hesitantly, then started going down the path with the Shadow symbol. She gave Lorica a slight wave as she left.
"Good luck, Lor. Hopefully we get through this." She said with uncertainty.
Lorica sighed, worrying about her close friend. What was up with May...Well, the Elf didn't really have the time to mull over that. She shook her worry away, then turned to the path where the Wind element symbol pointed. With her head held high, she strode up the path, toward the shrine at the very end.
It was shielded by a bubble of wind, which parted as soon as Lorica got close. A statue of an Elven woman was revealed. Her rapier was raised in victory towards the heavens, and a glowing green gemstone was placed below her chest.
Lorica's Sacred Treasure appeared in hand, and she raised it to touch the gemstone. She was enveloped in a warm, divine light as she was taken from the mortal realm.
Lorica awoke in a forest, though not the one she called home.
This forest felt...odd. Like there were presences in the air, ghosting around her and making her feel rather warm. Then Lorica sensed them, many small spirits floating about. They seemed rather playful, bumping into her and pulling her forward.
Lorica let them guide her through the beautiful pines, and she noted how healthy their bark looked. Now that she thought about it...this place felt much like Nirvana...That meant this was a divine forest of some sort.
She emerged into a small clearing in the depths of the forest. And there, resting on a throne carved into a tree stump, was a boy that looked no more than twelve. He was positively immaculate, with his well-combed short golden hair and forest green tunic adorned with gold pins and a brown cape. A narrow and short blade, a stiletto, hung at his left side.
As Lorica approached, the boy's sapphire eyes opened. He grinned at her, then stood up and flourished his cape.
"Why, hello there!" He greeted. "You must be the seventh Lorica."
"I am indeed Princess Lorica VII." She confirmed, crossing her arms. "As the tradition goes for girls born into the royal line, I am named after-"
"The First Lorica, who was one of the first Heroes of Arum. Heh...It's funny, how every one of you looks just like her. Except maybe a tad bigger, in your case. I wonder...do your sword skills hold up as well? Although I seriously doubt that, ha ha!"
Lorica huffed, getting a bit annoyed. Was this child seriously talking down to her? Who did he think he was?
"I did not come here to be insulted by a little boy." She said. "Who the hell are you, anyway?"
The boy bowed. "My name is Vaughn. I am an Eidolon, the guardian of your Vindrbrandr. If you wish to unlock its true power, you must face me in a duel."
"Wait...you? What can a little boy like you even do against me?"
"Heh heh...don't let appearances be deceiving. I assure you that I can hold my own in a fight."
Lorica smirked and stepped back, summoning her weapon. If this kid wanted a fight, he was going to get one. And she wasn't going to make it easy for him.
"I'll show you how worthy I am." She said confidently. "Give me all you got, in this honorable duel between Elves."
Vaughn drew his silver blade, flourishing it as he did a little spin.
"I expect the same from you, Lori." He said with a wink. "Actually, I want to see you make the first move. Go on, strike me as fast as you can."
Not seeing a reason to argue with that, Lorica took up the offer. She darted in, quickly closing the distance to strike the boy between the eyes. But just as her blade was about to make contact, he sidestepped at blinding speed and avoided it entirely.
"Wow, that was a close one." He said nonchalantly. "As expected, you are fast. Just not fast enough."
Lorica blinked in surprise, but shook it off and struck again...again...and again. She unleashed a rapid series of jabs at Vaughn and chased him all around the clearing, trying to hit him somewhere on his body. But he was always just out of reach, still with that now annoyingly calm smile.
Finally, Lorica stopped her attacks and hopped back, huffing a bit from her efforts. Vaughn hummed and spun his blade around, tossing and catching it with surprising dexterity.
"That was pretty fun!" He said cheekily. "Now then...it's my turn!"
He dashed at Lorica so fast, she barely even had time to react. She narrowly avoided a strike at her leg. Her eyes went wide with shock at the sheer speed of the attack.
Vaughn continued to attack at this breakneck pace, moving around Lorica like a pesky fly, and she pushed herself to the limit trying to fend him off. Every lightning-fast strike pushed her around as she narrowly blocked or dodged them. Some got through her guard, leaving her with stinging cuts on her thighs and arms.
Then he flipped backwards as he withdrew, giving a little bow upon landing.
"Ah, that was a good warm-up!" He said with a grin. "Well Lori, what do you think of my swordsmanship?"
Lorica panted heavily, wincing from her wounds. That masterful swordplay...it was not something a boy his age should possess...Just who was he...
Wait, Vaughn...Where had she heard that name before? That was when she remembered the namesake of her blade.
"Your name is Vaughn..." She said incredulously. "As in...the Sole Prince Vaughn, the Swift Sparrow, younger brother to the First Princess Lorica. Vindrbrandr was named after you!"
"Took you long enough to realize." He said, tilting his head up proudly. "Yep, you're facing the greatest swordsman in history! The youngest of them all!"
"You had mastered the blade at age twelve...and you were on the way to becoming Captain of the Elven Royal Guard. Then the First Dark War happened...and you were slain while trying to defend Grindia from a Demon that had managed to find it."
Vaughn sighed and lowered his sword. "Ah yes...that tale. There's really more to it than that. I was an arrogant child back then...and I believed that I could do anything by myself. I felt like I didn't need any friends or whatever to win my battles. The attack on Grindia that night...it happened because I tried to ambush that Demon's camp alone. I got overwhelmed by the sheer numbers against me...and I had to run away. They followed my blood, and laid siege on Grindia. It only survived because I payed the price for it, with my death in a final battle with that Demon."
Lorica was taken aback by his confession. Someone renowned as a hero...was really the one who almost caused the downfall of the Elven race. All because of his pride and over-confidence...
The worst part was...she knew she almost turned out just like him. If she hadn't had friends to pick her up...things would have ended badly for her, and them...and Grindia.
"I was arrogant too...just like you were." She admitted, a hand on her chest. "I thought I could be someone that I really wasn't. I wanted so bad to prove that I didn't need anyone...and I almost died because of it. But now...I have friends and a father I can believe in, and who believe in me. I have someone I love back home, and I want to make sure she's safe. I'm not alone...and I never will be."
Vaughn smiled bitterly and nodded. "That's good...You realized something, what I did not until it was too late. That we are not supreme warriors who can take everything alone. Our friends and family have our backs, and we need to have theirs."
Then he grinned and flipped his stiletto, taking a stance.
"So show me your spirit! Prove to me how far you are willing to go for the sake of those you care about! Are they your strength, as much as you are theirs?"
Lorica smiled and nodded, getting into her own stance. Her determination was renewed, thanks to their conversation. For the sake of her friends, family, and loved one...she would do her best to succeed here.
"I will prove myself!" She declared. "Prince Vaughn, the legendary Swift Sparrow, I'm not going to hold back! So you better give me your all as well!"
"That's what I like to hear!" He said, pulling his blade back. "Princess Lorica VII, let your Trial begin!"
The Elves lunged for each other at the same time, the air around them bursting from their speed. Lorica jabbed and swiped as fast she could, trying to get Vaughn off guard in a full offensive. He clashed his blade with hers in a symphony of sparks and clangs, parrying every strike as fast as they came. He managed to slip a cut on her wrist, making her gasp and drop her rapier.
She jumped back, clutching her wound and wincing from pain. Vaugh spun his blade, chuckling a bit.
"What are you going to do now?" He taunted.
Lorica grit her teeth, pushing her pain aside as she summoned her blade to her uninjured hand. Attacking him head-on like that didn't work...She would need to get crafty if she wanted to get a hit on him.
She eyed the woods behind him. Maybe if she could hinder his mobility...
With that in mind, she sprinted forward, rushing past Vaughn and into the cover of the trees. She heard him laughing behind her, and calling out to her.
"You can't hide from me, Lori!"
She could sense him coming after her from behind, hopping from tree to tree. She continued to run, trying to get as far into the woods as possible, while also charging magic through her sword. Vaughn quickly got closer...and closer...
Then she turned around, pointing the sword at Vaughn as she cast the spell she had prepared.
The young Elven Prince was attacked with a flurry of luminous wind blades. At this close range, Lorica thought there was no way he could avoid it. But she hadn't expected him to charge his Imperium at that very instant and spin rapidly, so fast that she could hardly believe it. Not a single blade hit him, as he had deflected them all in the blink of an eye.
He then closed the short distance, kicking Lorica in the face amd sending her flying into a tree. She coughed as her back struck hard wood, and she stumbled forward before falling to one knee. Just as she tried to get back on her feet, Vaughn stepped up and pointed his sword between her eyes.
"You almost had me there." He mused. "But you just missed the mark. I suppose you'll be forfeiting, yes?"
Lorica scowled and flicked her blade, casting Wind to blow him away so she could stagger up. He quickly flipped in midair and landed on a tree, grinning at her.
"Let's dance then, Lori."
He vaulted off the tree, spinning as he rushed past Lorica for a slash at her face. She barely deflected it, and he landed on another tree nearby. He leaped off that one, going over to slice the top of her head. She ducked and tried to retaliate with another Wind, but she narrowly missed him.
Vaughn launched himself off another tree, his stiletto gleaming as he aimed for Lorica's face. She quickly dismissed her weapon and thrust her hand, trying to grab him out of the air. But just before she made contact, he dove under and cut her right leg as he passed, which made her gasp in pain and stumble. Then he swiftly sliced her other leg before she could react, which finally made her fall on her knees again.
The young Elf walked around to face her, hands behind his back as he smirked in amusement.
"I see what you tried to do by coming here." He said as a matter of fact. "Quite clever, trying to limit my mobility. The problem for you is that I'm just too small for such a trick. Rather, you ended up giving me another advantage."
Lorica winced and shook from her wounds, feeling humiliated. Of course...she should have taken his size into account. Now she was down for the count...There was no way she could beat him...But she had so much on the line...she couldn't think of giving up. Not yet...
She shakily stood, almost collapsing from the pain in her bloody legs. She summoned Vindrbrandr and started going on the offensive. She made a rapid series of jabs and swipes at Vaughn, growling at him in frustration. He just smirked and parried every strike, completely deflecting the last one and making her stumble back.
"You're finished!" He shouted, leaping up for a strike at her face.
But Lorica saw it...an opportunity to break his guard. She dismissed her weapon again, then raised her hand just as his blade cut between her eyes. She caught it in a tight hold, cutting her palm and fingers in the process. She now had Vaughn held in midair, surprised at this form of defense.
She raised her free hand. Though injured, she could at least give him a hard slap in retaliation. She swung with all of her remaining strength, and there was an audible "smack" as she was able to make contact. Vaughn was thrown aside, and he flew until his back hit a tree, then he fell to a sitting position.
"Ow..." He groaned.
Lorica coughed out a small laugh, dropping the stiletto and collapsing onto her knees, then falling back. She was in so much pain...and she still lost. But she at least went down doing the best she could...
Vaughn got up and walked over to her. He grinned down at her, a red mark on his cheek.
"You actually hit me, nice one!" He said cheerily. "But you didn't beat me, unfortunately."
He held his hands over her, and Lorica soon found her wounds being healed and her energy restored. She slowly stood, shaking her head and sighing.
"I could not best someone as skilled as you." She said with a bitter smile. "Even with everything I had...At least I gave it my all."
"I expected nothing more or less, Lori. Even against such odds, you fought with great determination befitting of an Elven Princess. But your skill...it's so close to being just like my sister's. You're almost there, I can feel it."
Lorica's eyes widened at that. Was she really almost as skilled as her namesake? Such praise...it warmed her.
"Thank you, Prince Vaughn." She said with relief.
He chuckled and held out his hand. "Now, show me your Sacred Treasure."
She summoned Vindrbrandr and placed its blade flat on his palm. With that, he began to chant.
"Sword of Wind, I call to you! Your wielder has proven herself worthy! As a great Elven swordswoman, she is ready to be given your true power! I recognize Princess Lorica VII as a true Hero of Wind!"
A powerful wind burst from the rapier, nearly blowing Lorica back. Vaughn grinned and stepped back, hands now behind him.
"Now go ahead, say the command. Release!"
"Release!" Lorica shouted fiercely, brandishing her weapon.
In a flash of light, Vindrbrandr began to change form. The gold flower petals that made up the crossguard bloomed and multiplied, turning into a proper guard over its user's hand. The blade shortened a little, and became slightly more narrow.
Once the transformation was complete, Lorica marveled at her new weapon. It was simply pristine...
"Beautiful..." She murmured.
"It certainly is." Vaughn agreed. "That is Vindrbrandr's Release, its true form. Fittingly, it is called Wisteria Bloom. Perfect for someone much like my sister."
"Thank you, great Eidolon. I promise to use it well."
"Heh heh, I know you will! Now then...it is about time we part ways. Go, be a great Hero of Arum, much like my sister was."
With that, the Sole Prince Vaughn turned and walked away, disappearing in the shade of the trees. Lorica tilted her head as she thought she saw a bit of sadness in his smile. That was she realized that he was probably missing his sister, the First Princess Lorica. How long had he been here, thinking about her? Being an Eidolon...was probably a very lonely existence.
"I hope you'll get to see her again." Lorica said quietly, as the world around her started to be enveloped in light. "I won't let either of you down, or anyone I care about."
Then everything became dark as she was taken back to the mortal realm, where her friends would probably be waiting.