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The Concerto of Spirits

Azure Sage

Join your hands...
Staff member
ZD Legend
Comm. Coordinator
Hello, dear readers! It's time to begin the Second Movement! We have a short little time skip here, and we're gonna start getting into a new series of events in Hyleigh. Bit by bit, the forces behind the scenes are going to be revealed... Look forward to it!

Chapter Eleven
Seeking Something New​

Three weeks in Hyleigh passed by quietly. After such a length of time, Tetra and her pirates were finally getting adjusted to the new environment. It had gotten to the point where seeing trains run by no longer made them stop and stare in slack-jawed wonder. The technological marvel of public transportation started to cement itself as part of everyday life for the seafaring folks.

The crew stayed in Papuchiya Village for these three weeks, assisting every day with reconstruction. Their first day in town was chaotic for a multitude of reasons, but each day since had been mysteriously serene. No monsters reared their heads around the town in the following days, allowing the villagers and the crew alike to focus on recuperation and recovery. The holes in fishing nets were repaired, the fraying boards of the walkways patched up, the collapsing walls of the homes reinforced, and the hearts of the people were mended and soothed.

It seemed as though the local militia was terribly undermanned and underequipped. Tetra had heard how most towns had makeshift defense forces to fend off the ever-frequent monster raids, but many of them only amounted to an odd dozen people wielding farm tools and other blunt objects, just as the crew witnessed upon their arrival.

Curious, Tetra had asked Tarno what the establishment in Hyleigh was like. Surely, if monster attacks were that bad, there must be some kind of concerted effort to keep people safe and properly armed. He explained to her about the Hyleigh Council, and described it as more of a meeting for bickering rather than action. No one could get the right people together to train and equip proper militias because no one could agree where the greatest need was. That was Tarno’s impression, at least.

This stagnant situation left a bad taste in the entire crew’s mouths, not just Tetra’s. Gonzo and Senza got together to teach basic form and sword swings to some of the more able-bodied villagers, while the younger crowd gathered around Link to observe his drills. Even Linebeck contributed in his own way, teaching his share of DIY tricks for reusing supplies and reducing waste. His frugality was astounding to everyone, even the crew.

One particular morning, however, things changed, as they so often do.

* * *

Tetra awoke in her cabin feeling restless. She didn't sleep well. There was a persistent nagging in her brain that wouldn't allow her to wind down. Rubbing her eyes and stretching, she climbed out of her bed and threw on some clothes. She was inclined toward a black vest more than her usual blue one today. She also switched out her red ascot for a yellow one. Looking in her mirror as she fixed her hair into a bun put a satisfied smile on her face.

She hooked herself up with her cutlass at her waist and a dagger in her boot. On her way out the door, she glanced at the piece of parchment hanging on the wall. She used her dagger to cut another quick tally mark into it. This morning brought the crew to twenty-three days in Hyleigh. Perhaps that was the cause for her restlessness. They still hadn't left the familiarity of Papuchiya Village.

I'm starting to feel cooped up here. The town's in good shape now, so maybe it's time to push on...

As she left her cabin, she drank in the fresh seaside air. When they first arrived, they'd docked at the edge of town, behind the wheat fields. But they’d since sailed around to the front, along the side close to the train station. Papuchiya was a cluster of small islands, with the mainland wrapping around from the west and north. The ocean cradled it from the south and the east, with the Spirit Tracks hovering over the water toward the east.

With their ship now on the east side of town next to the tracks, Zuko had an excellent vantage point from the crow's nest. Tetra could already see him perched up there, hard at work since the earliest hours of the morning. Sporting a whistle crafted by Mako, he was their dedicated warning system for monsters.

From the deck, she could also see the rest of her crew out and about. Niko was helping to bring Mako some supplies, which he was using to teach the townspeople how to craft and repair simple traps and defenses. Gonzo and Senza were at it again, instructing folks on fighting and swordwork. Neither of them had formal training, but they had plenty of real battle experience. Nudge kept himself busy teaching strategy and battle positioning. Though most of his knowledge was only applicable to sea battles, he was figuring out how to adjust it for land defense right along with the villagers.

It was a lot of work for early morning. As usual, she didn't see Linebeck yet. He was likely taking his sweet time waking up within the comfort of his own ship. And then there was Link, surrounded by the kids like he always was. He was such a magnet for them that it always made Tetra smirk. She marched over toward him and waited for him to finish showing them how to swing a sword (or in this case, a stick).

Grateful for the lesson, the kids shared a few apples with him. Once Link had waved the kids off, he turned around and jumped. “Woah! You should have said something if you were watching!”

“Heh. And miss out on that priceless reaction?” Tetra grinned.

He tossed her one of the apples, and she bit into it right away. The two of them sat down on one of the walkways, facing the sea.

“It’s been three weeks since we’ve arrived, as of today.” Tetra said between bites.

“Wow... Doesn’t feel like it.” Link said, digging into his own fruit.

“You said it. Been a while since we’ve stayed in one place this long... Not since the Realm of the Ocean King. And we’re gonna be here even longer...”

“Is that bad?”

“Not necessarily. I mean, we all agreed to this. But I’m starting to get stiff.” Tetra finished her apple and rose to her feet. “What do you think? This place is pretty set now, so I’m itching to go see what the rest of Hyleigh is like. You in?”

Link’s eyes lit up with wonder and excitement. He’d become a real adventure junkie over the years since they’ve been traveling together. Tetra knew there was no way he could resist this suggestion. He sprung up and nodded his head so fast that it could have popped off his shoulders.

Tetra pumped her fist to match his enthusiasm. “Alright! Let’s go round up the boys and-”


An ear-piercing whistle startled the both of them. Their heads whipped around to the source, Zuko up in the crow’s nest. There was only one thing that could mean.

“Monsters? They sure know how to pick their timing!” Tetra complained.

Link didn’t waste a second to place his sack of apples down and sprint off toward the village entrance. Everyone else stopped what they were doing. In practiced fashion, the villagers collected their kids and retreated toward the wheat fields while the militia members set up the traps they’d crafted and armed themselves. Tetra’s Pirates ran to meet up with Link, and Linebeck finally poked his head out from his ship.

As the others converged near the station, Tetra dashed back to her ship. She climbed the mast to meet with Zuko in record time.

“What do you see?” she said urgently.

“North-northeast. Pirate ships heading due east.” Zuko explained, handing her his telescope.

Tetra peered through it, and sure enough, three rickety vessels were sailing along through the bay. They were covered with miniblins, and at least one big blin stood in charge on each. However, they weren’t heading in their direction.

“Hmm... They aren’t coming this way. They’re not even looking at us, and they’re pretty far out. They aren’t a problem. So why did you sound the alarm?” she asked.

“Because of what they are looking at.” Zuko said, pointing to the east.

Tetra followed where he was pointing with her telescope, and she bit her lip. On an island a ways out from shore sat another bustling town, this one more stone and mortar than the humble Papuchiya. And the monster pirates were headed straight for it.

“Yeah... That’s a problem.” Tetra said.

Together with Zuko, Tetra regrouped with her crew and the militia to relay the situation. The townspeople were relieved that Papuchiya wasn’t in immediate danger, and one of them left to go inform the others. Meanwhile, the crew muddled over their options. What were they going to do?

“Let’s go help.” Link said without hesitation.

“Yeah, I figured you’d say that. I have to agree this time. We said we’d stay here to help Hyleigh, after all.” Tetra said.

“Great Bay City is our neighbor, and we trade with them all the time. I’d hate to see them suffer like we have again.” one of the villagers said.

“Great Bay, huh... Yeah, I don’t mind helping, but it’s gonna take a hot minute to get our ship underway. Who knows if we’ll make it in time?” Gonzo said.

“Plus, we’d have to sail alongside the Spirit Tracks... They’re blocking our way into the bay.” Nudge said.

“Yeah, that’ll make it hard to access the town... But we still need to try.” Tetra said firmly.

“Hang on! I just had a brilliant idea!” Linebeck said. “Why don’t you just take a train? The Spirit Tracks run over the water, and look, there’s a train sitting in the station right now!”

“Huh... That’s actually a good idea. I’m surprised, you old coot!” Tetra said.

“Of course it’s- HEY!” Linebeck snapped.

“Oh yeah, we haven’t even gotten to ride a train yet since we've been here! Let’s go!” Niko said excitedly.

“Quite right! This will be a fascinating learning experience!” Mako agreed.

“Hey, don’t forget there’s a battle to fight after the ride.” Senza reminded them.

“I was just thinking it was time to stretch our legs, too. Well, when opportunity knocks, as they say. Let’s move!” Tetra commanded.

“Aye aye!”

With that order, the crew moved at once to board the train. “Right so! And I’ll hold down the fort here-” Linebeck started to say.

“Nuh-uh. Nice try, pal. Let’s go.” Gonzo said, grabbing his arm and dragging him along.

“Augh! What sense would there be in my going?! Unhand me, you brute!”

Despite his protests, the salty sailor was thrust aboard the train with the others. After explaining the situation to the driver, the engine was started and the mechanical beast started moving. Link hopped up and down excitedly, running to the front with Mako to watch how it was operated.

Tetra found herself a window seat, and looked out to watch Papuchiya Village slowly begin to recede away. The village militia waved after them, calling out words of encouragement.

“Good luck! You can do this!”

“Don’t worry about your ship! We’ll keep it safe while you’re gone!”

“Thanks for all you’ve done for us! Please save Great Bay City, too!”

Poking her head out the window, Tetra grinned and waved back. The train’s engine roared louder and louder, and the chugging and lugging of the wheels jostled the passenger car around. In mere minutes, they were over open water. Tetra found herself amazed that the Spirit Tracks could hold the train’s weight without creaking or bending.

The ocean breeze whipped past her face harder and faster than it did on any boat she’d ever sailed on. The rhythmic puffing of the train’s smokestack melted into the background, and she enjoyed the feeling of being pulled along at a speed she could have scarcely imagined before. This new and exciting sensation put a genuine smile on her face.

She then ran to the other side of the car, looking out of those windows instead. From this side, she could see into the bay. The monster pirate ships were mere specks on the horizon, but even from this distance, she could tell the train would arrive at their destination before they would. It was just that fast.

“Phew... This train thing sure is something!” Gonzo said in awe.

“At this speed, we could cover the whole country in no time flat!” Senza said.

“It’s got no defense, though... Let’s hope the monsters don’t notice us before we get where we’re going.” Nudge said.

“I-it’ll be fine! Let’s just enjoy the ride while we can!” Niko squawked.

Tetra found herself agreeing with the lad. Since she’d woken up, she had a nagging feeling in her gut. She’d been wanting to experience something new. She wanted to keep chasing that high she felt after saving Papuchiya, of course, but there was more to it than that. Their time in Hyleigh was sure to be filled with new experiences. Surely they’d get to see even more things beyond their imagination. Such was the potential she could feel in this place.

Her smile grew wider. She stood in the center of the car now, turning to face her crew with her hands on her hips. Each of them was just as eager as she was. With a sparkle in her eyes reminiscent of her green-clad partner, she raised her sword up high and spoke with deep pride.

“Alright, boys... You ready? It’s time for a new adventure!”

Second Movement: The Bolero of Souls

Azure Sage

Join your hands...
Staff member
ZD Legend
Comm. Coordinator
At last, it's time for the next chapter! Due to current events in my life, I wasn't able to work on this at the paced I wanted to, but I'm satisfied with the end result. I'm really looking forward to doing the next few chapters. Enjoy!

Chapter Twelve
Those In Power​

Beneath a domed roof, surrounded by white pillars and stained glass, sat the stage of a fruitless cycle of debate and discussion. This was the center of Hyleigh’s capital, the Council.

When it was first conceived, there was a member for each race that called Hyleigh home. However, in the millennia since, the Zora and the Gerudo left from the land, and the Kokiri vanished. To account for this, the Council adjusted its roles. In the present day, they had one representative from each Realm in Hyleigh instead. The demon position had also been promoted from a liaison to a permanent seat.

This was the current structure of the Council. The idea was that each member would work together to direct the flow of resources and solve problems. However, such a plan only worked if the members could agree.

Rasta held in a deep sigh as he reclined in his seat at the round table. Covering his mouth with his palm to hide his grimace, he kept silent until he could find an opening to intervene.

“Ya gotta be kidding me! You know we Anouki ain’t fighters! We lose more o’ our kin with every attack! If we don’t get some relief soon, we’ll be wiped out!” argued Mabufu, the Anouki member and representative of the Snow Realm.

“You aren’t the only ones in such a predicament, you know! We Gorons used to lay claim to an entire city carved out of stone... Now all we have is a meager village with little protection! We can barely spare the time to produce weapons when all of our attention is focused on defense! We’re the ones that really need relief!” Darius, the Goron member and representative of the Fire Realm, argued back.

“Excuse me! Need I remind you that Great Bay City was attacked only yesterday! It was barely even a month ago that Papuchiya was attacked repeatedly, too! Shouldn’t we be getting more aid than this right now?!” Anderson, one of the human members and representative of the Ocean Realm, objected.

Rasta finally found his chance. “We received confirmation that the attack on Great Bay City yesterday was intercepted and prevented by a group of friendly pirates. You recall when Papuchiya was attacked three weeks ago and they appeared to help, yes? Seems that group of outlanders wants to continue helping.” he explained.

“Well, yes... I am grateful to them for protecting my hometown, but that still doesn’t-” he tried to say.

“There you have it! Your exaggerated need for supplies has been exposed! Heck, I’d say with those strangers around, you’re better protected than the rest of us!” Darius spat.

“Why, you-” Anderson growled, his cheeks hot.

“Now, now, let’s be civil. Our duty is too important to be obfuscated by bickering.” reasoned Llewellyn, the other human member and representative of the Forest Realm. “As I’m sure you recall, my home of Mayscore was brutally attacked last month. Thirteen people died. And yet, we have managed to move on, and I am able to recognize that there are other, more dire needs at the present moment. The same is true for the Ocean Realm right now.”

As composed as ever. If only the rest of them were this level-headed. Thinking this, Rasta spoke up again. “Unless something else comes up in the next few days in either the Forest or Ocean Realms, I believe your efforts are best spared on the Snow and Fire Realms. Sir Mabufu makes a good point about the vulnerabilities of his people, but Sir Darius is also correct in his reasoning. If the Gorons receive a little more aid right now, it may be possible for them to produce more weapons that can then be shared with the Snow Realm.”

“And who do you expect to use those weapons? Certainly not us Anouki! We need protection, not arms!” Mabufu argued.

“If you aren’t even willing to protect yourselves, the supplies would be wasted on you! We only have so much to spare!” Darius countered.

Llewellyn cleared her throat, trying to change the subject before another argument broke out. “Speaking of which, may I ask how the next shipment of supplies from the Mystic Realm is coming along, Sir Rasta? Demon King Mikhaeyla returned to St. Versailles recently, didn’t she?”

“She did, but only for a short time. She went to help Demon Lord Hawthorne prepare the next round of supplies. I also received word that the relief aid from the Lokomo may be slowed somewhat for a while longer. After they were attacked by the Laughing Reaper three weeks ago, they’ve been out of sorts.”

“I can’t blame them. No one expected the Sacred Realm of the Spirits to be attacked, of all places. That hasn’t happened since the Great War.” Llewellyn said.

“I sure can. They’re immortal, aren’t they? What do they have to be afraid of? I heard their supplies weren’t even damaged.” Anderson complained.

“That freaky Reaper hasn’t shown himself since, has he? He attacked the Lokomo and showed up at Papuchiya in the same day, and then suddenly went quiet... Ain’t no tellin’ what a nasty customer like that’ll do next! All the more reason why we need protection!” Mabufu said.

“Oh, come off it. You said yourself your people aren’t fighters, and it’s well known now that the Reaper is seeking strong opponents. Why would he bother with you lot? If anything, we Gorons are in more danger! He’s already attacked us before, and he’ll surely do it again!” Darius said.

Rasta could no longer hold in a sigh, but the others were too busy arguing to notice. Llewellyn, who was seated nearest to him, was the only one who did.

“I’m sorry, that was unprofessional.” Rasta said quietly.

“It’s alright. I’m just as exasperated as you.” Llewellyn whispered back. “You have a contact with the Lokomo, correct? Byrne, I think his name was? Have you heard from him at all? An update on their situation might finally be what puts an end to this dispute.”

“Fresh supplies from the Lokomo would be very welcome right now... But when I last spoke with him four days ago, he said he still had not returned to the Sacred Realm. Apparently, their missing Lokomo, a Lady Kuudo, has still not been found. Several of their people have joined Byrne in trying to locate her, which is why their relief efforts have been bogged down.”

“They can sense each other like your kind can, right? Is that not enough to bring her back?”

“Apparently not. From what I hear, she’s determined to hunt down the Laughing Reaper, for better or worse.”

“I see. And Lady Mikhaeyla is hunting him, as well... Mabufu was right when he called him a nasty customer. I sure hope he’s brought to justice soon. That would be one less thing threatening the people of Hyleigh, as well as one less thing on the table for us to argue about.”

Rasta covered his mouth to muffle a small snicker. “Yes... We need to get as much off that table as we can.”

* * *

Hours came and went. Afternoon turned into evening, and no progress on the discussion was made. Another typical day for the governing body of Hyleigh. Once the Council was adjourned, each of its members trudged back to their homes in the surrounding capital city. Rasta was no exception, although his routine was slightly different.

Always the last to leave, he locked the chamber doors behind himself. His footsteps echoed through the high, concaved hallways toward the lobby. In his mind, he pictured the face of his wife sitting in there waiting for him, as she did every day. This was the biggest relief of his day. The sight of her smile always melted away the stress that came from hours of debate.

When he rounded the corner into the lobby, he found her sitting in her usual spot; a bench against a pillar in the center of the room, facing right at the hall from which he'd emerge. However, today she was not alone. Rasta was pleasantly surprised to find Sitri Beldine, the niece of his liege, sitting with her. The two were happily chatting the time away.

Now that’s a sight. I didn’t know Sitri was in the area.

Sitri was the first to notice him. When she waved him over, his wife’s eyes lit up.

“Hello, Rasta! You’re finally done for the day, huh?” Sitri said.

“How was work today, dear?” his wife asked, standing up to greet him.

“Same as ever. Just as I’m happy as ever to see you were waiting for me.” Saying so, Rasta planted a kiss on his wife’s cheek. “I see you and Sitri were having fun.”

“We were! Miss Granye is always so kind. She was teaching me about a recipe she’s been working on for you.” Sitri said.

“Hey, now! That was supposed to be a surprise!” Granye pouted as Rasta smirked.

Granye was just as human as Sitri. She was born and raised in Hyleigh City, and worked as a schoolmaster for small children. Rasta, with his dark hair, pointed ears, and fanged teeth, made a stark contrast with his wife's sunny hair and silver eyes. He was from a family of pureblooded demons, but that didn't stop him from falling in love with her, nor her with him.

“Oh, yes. Rasta, Sitri wanted to speak with you.” Granye informed him.

Rasta nodded his understanding. “Why don’t you come have dinner with us? We can speak then, if it’s not urgent.”

“Are you sure that’s fine? I’d love to!” Sitri said happily.

The young girl didn’t hint at what the topic was, but Rasta felt he could already guess. He’d heard from Mikhaeyla how Sitri had been specifically targeted by the Laughing Reaper three weeks back, just when they’d all thought the chaos of that day had quieted down. Sitri described how he’d only spared her life on a whim. Knowing her as he did, he figured this would be among the topics of discussion.

His hunch was dead on. After a lively dinner featuring Granye's latest recipe, braised pork using spices Rasta brought from the Mystic Realm, Sitri sat down with him in his home's study. She seemed particularly antsy. When she finally did speak, her voice was soft.

“Rasta... You heard how I got attacked by the Reaper- I mean, by Zoie, right?” she began.

She wants to make a point of using his name instead of his title? She sure takes after her aunt.

“Yes, Her Majesty told me all about that. How have you been doing since then?”

“I've been okay... Aunt Mikha healed me right after it happened. Hyleigh’s been pretty quiet these past few weeks, so I was taking some time to train. But I kind of hit a dead end, so I was hoping to get some advice from you...”

“From me? I am no fighter, Sitri. Any questions you have would be better spoken to Lady Mikhaeyla's ears.”

“I don't want to bother her when she's so busy, if I can help it... Besides, I don't want to rely on her for everything. She's done so much for me... I want to stand on my own feet, and I want her to feel at ease about me.”

As Sitri said this, Rasta picked up on a hint of loneliness hiding behind her eyes. He grubbed his chin and considered her words. During this pause, Granye entered the room with cups of hot tea for each of them. With a gentle smile, Sitri indulged. Granye pulled up a seat next to Rasta with a cup of her own.

“Are you joining us?” Sitri asked.

“I'm not in the way, am I?” Granye said.

“No, of course not! Never!” the girl assured her.

Granye looked satisfied and blew on her tea to cool it. Rasta helped himself to a sip, as well, and the honeyed flavor warmed his body and relaxed his mind. When he was ready, he posed a question of his own.

“So what exactly are you seeking from me, if not combat advice?” he asked.

“Well... I hope this isn't offensive or rude to ask, but... Is there a secret for dealing with magic, or a trick, or something...?” Sitri inquired, looking a little embarrassed.

“Ah, I see. You hoped for a demon’s perspective. Don't worry, I'm not offended by that question. Is this still about Zoie?”

“Yeah... He told me he's gonna come find me again after I get stronger. I want to be prepared. Besides, I know that in the past, Alphonse defeated Demon Lord Vaati before he got to borrow magic... There must be a way to win without it.” she said, wringing her hands.

So, what this is really about, is Alphonse...

Rasta was well aware of Sitri’s desire to be like the legendary Hero of Spirits. Mikhaeyla had confided in him about this before. She seemed to be concerned that it was growing into an obsession. He paused for a bit to think on a response, sipping his tea as his mind spun.

Granye was the one who spoke next. “So you want to be like Alphonse, huh? You know who you should really talk to? Lady Anjean!”

Sitri’s eyes almost popped out of her skull. “Really?! Is that... Is that okay? Can I just do that?”

“Of course you can! The lobby of the Tower of Spirits is always open for pilgrimages. You just can't go upstairs. I'm sure that you could meet with her, though.” Granye explained.

“She is busy monitoring the Physical Realm and directing the Lokomo, but it couldn't hurt to try.” Rasta agreed. “Anjean knew Alphonse personally, so I'm sure she might have some actual advice for you. Wonderful idea, love.”

“Yeah! I can't believe I never thought of that!” Sitri said excitedly. “I've always wanted to meet her... I sure hope she has time to talk...”

Something about the look on Sitri’s face made Rasta feel sad. She was smiling, but her eyes betrayed a feeling of desperation hiding in her heart. There was also a sense of longing hanging around her, like there was a void she was trying to fill. Just how deep had her obsession grown, he wondered.

Granye seemed to notice something similar in the girl. “Well, it's very late now. I'm sure it's time for even a Lokomo to rest! Why don't you spend the night here and go in the morning?” she suggested.

Sitri’s cheeks turned a little pink at that offer. “Are you sure? I don’t want to be a bother... Or, or intrude on you guys...” she said shyly.

“It’s fine! If it was a bother, I wouldn’t have asked!” Granye said with a wink.

Sitri smiled beside herself, and nodded. The two girls stood first to clean up their tea. Rasta stayed seated for a while longer, gazing at his wife. He hadn’t seen such a happy smile on her face in a while. He was rarely at home in recent months due to Council work. He knew that the time away was hard on both of them.

Granye hummed cheerfully to herself as she brought out some of her old night clothes and ushered Sitri to their guest room. The young girl still looked anxious, but she was smiling brightly nonetheless. However much she tried to hide it, she was still a kid without parents of her own. Being pampered was bound to make her happy.

Granye hasn’t asked me about trying again for a child lately... Probably because of how busy I am. I wonder if this is what it would be like if we had a kid? Would I get to see her smile like that every day if we had one of our own?

Rasta clenched his fist, quietly considering this. If Hyleigh was more peaceful, the Council would be less active, and he and his wife would have far more time together for such activities. The peace of the land was directly tied to the peace of his own life, he thought.

“Just one more reason we must do all that we can...” he whispered to himself. “And I’m sure that deep down, Sitri is seeking this sort of peace for herself, as well...”

Azure Sage

Join your hands...
Staff member
ZD Legend
Comm. Coordinator
Hello, hello! It's finally time to get back to this story! It's been a month and a half... Dealing with the loss of my grandmother and also starting two new games has kept me away from this for far too long. But I'm feeling back in the groove now, at last. Without further adeiu, let's see what Sitri is up to now...

Chapter Thirteen
Proving Worth​

“Whoa... My neck hurts just from trying to see the top...”

Early in the morning, Sitri was straining to look up at the Tower of Spirits. After catching a short train ride to the northeast of Hyleigh City, she stood at the foot of this legendary sacred monument. Two thousand years ago, the Spirits of Light moved it to the Physical Realm in order to seal away Demon King Malladus after his defeat at the hands of the Hero of Spirits. Sitri had yearned to visit it, but a nagging worry always held her back from actually going inside.

Am I really worthy to step inside such an amazing place? Alphonse was brought here and given the Lokomo Sword after he defeated Vaati... Meanwhile, I still haven’t accomplished much to brag about. But, I mean, it is open to pilgrims... But still, I always kind of wanted my first time coming here to be like how it was for Alphonse.

After a few moments more of staring at the mystical place, Sitri swallowed dryly and shook her head.

“It’s okay. I need to do this. Like Miss Granye said, Anjean should be able to help me...”

She took a deep breath and shook her arms around to get out a few lingering worries. At last, Sitri marched into the Tower of Spirits. The tower was massive and reached into the clouds, and at the base were four large thresholds, all black as pitch from the outside. The Spirit Tracks ran through each of these entrances, all emanating from the lobby within. This was the girl’s destination.

The soft sound of grass beneath her feet abruptly turned into the cold, hard echoes of stone. When she came out of the darkness, she found herself in an enormous chamber. Above her head, all she could see was more pitch black. Ahead of her, she spied a large staircase climbing the wall to another threshold, and she knew that was the path to the top. She also knew it was forbidden to climb the tower without permission. She hoped she wouldn’t have to chance doing that to meet with Anjean.

In the center of the lobby was a large turntable where the Spirit Tracks intersected. From there, easy access was granted to each of the four major Realms in Hyleigh. Only the Desert Realm didn’t have a direct line, but there was nothing there anymore, anyway. However, Sitri knew that in the past, something else once stood in place of that turntable.

“This is where the Lokomo Sword used to be enshrined... Where Alphonse first held it in his hands... Wow...” Sitri breathed in quiet awe. In her mind, she imagined what that could have looked like. She also imagined herself in Alphonse’s place. “The pedestal’s gone now, though... The tower must have changed a lot since he was here. I wonder where the sword is now...”

“That’s a secret, my dear.”


Sitri yelped at the sudden voice. She was so entranced, she hadn’t checked to see if she was alone before she started thinking aloud. But when she saw the owner of the voice, her own got caught in her throat. Appearing before her was none other than Anjean, the leader of the Lokomo.

She looked just as the legends described. Anjean was an older woman with wrinkles of age and experience set beneath her serene, black eyes. Her hair was a faded rosy pink and tied up in a tight bun. Like many of the older Lokomo, she used a two-wheeled wagon contraption to move around. She had a very dignified air about her.

Oh my gosh, it's really her! I have to say something! Come on, Sitri, speak up!

“Uh-um! I...! Uhm!” Sitri stuttered.

Anjean chuckled. “You sure are a bundle of nerves. I would think you'd prepared a speech beforehand, considering you're meeting a close friend of your ancestor, Sitri Beldine.”

“Wha?! You... You know who I am?!” Sitri gasped. She was so shocked, she thought she might pass out right then and there.

“Of course I do. It is my duty to observe the Physical Realm, and that naturally includes the people that live in it. Though I do keep a special watch on Alphonse’s descendants. It's quite impressive for a mortal family line to survive for two millennia, especially in such dire times. I guess that's to be expected of his progeny, though.” Anjean explained.

“Wow... I'm so honored by your words that I just don't know what to do with myself...” Sitri said, red from her cheeks to her ears.

“Heh. Perhaps you ought to take a moment to get composed.” Anjean smirked.

Oh no, I'm completely embarrassing myself... I have to get a grip!

Sitri turned away and took a few deep breaths. At the same time, she ran though a script in her brain. She had a lot of things to ask Anjean, and she needed to get her whirling thoughts under control and find a good starting point.

“So, um... Do you have time to talk?” Sitri asked meekly.

“I do indeed. Holding a simple conversation is not enough to distract me from my duties.” Anjean said.

“That's good...” she said, feeling relieved. “So then, I have to know... I'm sure you're aware of Zoie, the Laughing Reaper. He's challenged me before and he said he would return. I want to be prepared to fight him again, but I just don't know how to handle his magic. What should I do to win? I know Alphonse defeated Vaati without any magic, so it can't be impossible. Do you have any advice for me?”

“Hmm... You want to know how to overcome a more powerful opponent. I may be of some use to you, then.”

“Really?! You mean it?” Sitri lit up.

So it really is possible! She's really going to help me! I'm so glad I came here!

The girl could hardly hold in her excitement as Anjean scratched her chin. “I know from my time observing the Physical Realm that you are a skilled fighter. However, you lack in real battle experience with intelligent opponents. You need to brush up on your tactics. And your endurance could use some work, too. Ultimately, you need to practice fighting opponents that will not budge easily.”

“I see... I guess that makes sense. Monsters aren't usually a problem for me, but they're all I ever get to fight.” Sitri said thoughtfully.

“Yes, and the monsters of today are different from how they were in Alphonse's time. Now, that boy got by on pure grit and quick, creative thinking. He was the type who could keep getting back up until he won. But you need more work until you can reach that level. And so, I have a proposal for you.”

Sitri gulped. Whoa, does she have some kind of training for me? Something that will bring me closer to Alphonse’s level... Whatever it is, I want to do it!

“Know that ordinarily, I would not suggest this to anyone else. I am making an exception because of your connection to Alphonse and because I think your hard work is admirable. Sitri, how would you like to face a trial here in the Tower of Spirits?” Anjean asked.

“A trial? What kind?” she said, her curiosity piqued.

“As you may know, only the lobby here is open to the public. This is because each floor of the Tower is filled with dangerous traps to prevent anyone from tampering with the seal on Malladus from within. I created these sections of the Tower myself, as well as the Phantoms that guard them. And at the end of these perilous paths rest the Rail Maps that help to empower the Spirit Tracks. Sitri, if you're willing, I will allow you to go to the first floor and attempt to reach the Rail Map room. If you succeed, you will be rewarded.”

Sitri’s jaw dropped. “That sounds amazing! I want to do it! Please, allow me to take this trial!”

“Hold on. You should know that my Phantoms can't be tackled head-on. There are safe zones spread out across the floors, and if you stand in one, they won't be able to see you. This is your only defense. I will not help you any further. If you die, then that will be your own responsibility. Do you understand what this means?”

Sitri simmered down and nodded. “... It means that if I'm about to get myself killed, you won't come to save me.”

“That's right. So consider this carefully before you decide. If you can get past the traps and the Phantoms, you will gain experience that will benefit you against the likes of the Reaper. I will also grant you a gift that will aid you in the future. But there is a very real chance that you could die. Now, take a moment to think on it.”

Sitri’s eyes dropped to the floor as she heeded Anjean's warning. I can tell she's not messing around. She's really not going to save me. If I died just from training, that would break Aunt Mikha's heart.. Not to mention I'd be letting down everyone who's supported me. I'd be the shame of my entire family! But... I still have to try!

“There's always a chance that I could die every time I try to help someone. This is no different.” Sitri confidently asserted. “If I want to get stronger... If I want to get closer to Alphonse, then I have to do this. Please, let me attempt your trial.”

Anjean flashed a satisfied smile, as if she expected her to say that. “It seems you're already prepared to risk your life. Then ascend the tower, Sitri Beldine. Climb the stairs until you reach the first landing. It is there that your trial shall begin.”

After saying as much, Anjean gestured to the stairs in a grandiose fashion. Sitri gulped, and hesitated only for a moment. But before she realized it, her feet were already marching on their way.

An exhilarating feeling she couldn't quite name tensed up her limbs and muscles as she walked. Her head was spinning as she climbed the stairs, too excited to think clearly yet. She was actually granted an opportunity by the same Anjean that helped Alphonse. It almost didn't feel real. Almost.

When she entered the interior of the Tower of Spirits, she was enveloped by a swirling wind echoing throughout the massive structure. As she craned her neck, the stairs circling around the perimeter of the cylindrical spire looked endless. The steps themselves were uncomfortably far apart, so she had to take bigger steps than normal to climb. Somehow, that only made her more excited.

Sitri reached the first landing. Right away, her heart started racing at a dizzying speed. She had to pause to take some deep, calming breaths. Once she felt steady enough, she carefully examined the threshold. Just like all the others, it was pitch black. She stretched our her arms and legs and shook her hands around, assuring herself that she could do this one last time.

“Right... Here we go!” she said aloud.

The air quality changed as soon as she passed through that threshold. It became musty and stagnant, with dust particles floating through the air as thick as cotton balls. The lighting was dim, and the ceiling seemed uncomfortably close to her head. In front of her, a tiled hall stretched out to meet a pair of large stone doors in the middle of an opening.

Her footsteps echoed as she explored onward, cautious about the so-called Phantoms from Anjean’s warning. When she reached the doors, she could sense how imposingly heavy they were without even having to touch them. She looked around, unsure if she could move them herself. Perhaps there was a lever or a switch or something she could use. She could see there were branching hallways continuing out on either side of them. That seemed promising.

A heavy metal thud startled her and she whipped around. In her blind spot, something massive turned around the corner next to the stone doors. It appeared to be a walking suit of armor, but it was so big that even a Goron would feel a draft should he don the thing. It carried a sword and shield that were both almost as large as it was. Inside the visor, there were no eyes to be seen, but Sitri could tell it was staring straight at her.

“Whoa! Is that a Phantom?” Sitri gasped.

Without warning or pause, the Phantom lunged for her. Wordlessly, it swung its giant blade down, clearly intending to carve her in two. Sitri leapt back in the nick of time, drawing her sword. She cautiously started backing away, intending to observe how her adversary moved. However, the Phantom did not delay in chasing her down the second its sword was lifted.

Her foe did not move like a monster. It was frighteningly lifeless and precise. Sitri had no opportunity to strike back. All she could do was dodge. After ducking under repeated sword swings, one of which whirling dangerously close to her head, Sitri bit her lip and tried to make a run for it.

Anjean wasn’t kidding! How the heck am I supposed to fight something like this?!

As Sitri ran down the hall, she could feel the Phantom gaining on her. There were no gaps between its attacks and its movements. This only scared her more. Desperately, she tried to circle back to that first hall she’d come in from. But on her way, she spotted some curiously colored flooring down an adjacent wing. She remembered that Anjean had advised her about safe zones, and realized that had to be one of them.

Leaping past another sword swing, Sitri sprinted down the hall as fast as her feet could carry her. As soon as she stepped onto those colorful tiles, she felt a strange sense of calm wash over her. All the metal racket the Phantom was making abruptly stopped, as well. She turned around to watch it, and sure enough, it stood in place, turning its head like it was confused.

“Phew... It really can’t see me anymore. That’s a relief.” Sitri said, letting out a stressed sigh.

The Phantom, appearing to have completely lost track of the girl, turned away from the safe zone and began stalking the halls surrounding the stone doors. Sitri stayed in the safe zone to observe its behavior and look for patterns. From what she could tell, it didn’t look like it could feel tired or fatigued. It always walked in exactly the same way in exactly the same path without the slightest deviation. After what felt like dozens of minutes, Sitri plopped down into a sitting position.

“This is impossible... That thing is too perfect! There’s just no way I can beat it when it doesn’t let down its guard! If there were only some sort of break or lull in its movements, I could manage something, but it just doesn’t stop! What do I do...”

Complaining aloud to herself, Sitri scratched at her head. She was sure that Anjean was watching her. She was making a complete fool of herself. How could she live up to Alphonse’s legacy if she couldn’t handle something like this? She bit her lip harder, balling up her fists in frustration.

As she contemplated her situation, she thought back to how Anjean had described this trial. She said that she would not step in to save her, and so far, she was true to her word. But maybe there was some kind of hint in her instructions? All she really said was to reach the Rail Map room, though. That wasn’t really much help to her at the moment.

Then Sitri recalled her saying that this trial was designed to help her face seemingly insurmountable foes like Zoie, enemies she couldn’t tackle head-on. When she remembered that, she leapt to her feet. Something like an idea started forming in her brain. She waited for the Phantom to make another round past the safe zone, and when it did, she examined it more closely. Sure enough, she spotted a very prominent design on its back. It almost looked like a target of some sort. Now she had a fully-formed idea going on.

“Is this what Anjean meant by not being able to fight them head-on? It’s worth a try, I guess...”

Sneaking up out of the safe zone and striking the Phantom from behind was a cowardly strategy not befitting of a hero. At least, that was Sitri’s gut reaction to her idea. However, perhaps she was getting too hung-up on presenting herself as a hero. She could not forget the trouble that attitude got her into when she met those pirates in Papuchiya Village recently.

And so, swallowing her pride, Sitri crept out of the safe zone. She crouched down and moved as quietly as she could, praying that the Phantom didn’t hear her footsteps. When she was in striking range, she readied her sword. After one final moment of hesitation, she swung with all her might at that mark on its back.

The Phantom reacted with a jolt and fell to its knees. However, it was only downed for a mere moment. It swiftly turned on its heel and started chasing Sitri again without pause. She let out an unsightly yelp as she sprinted right back into the safe zone. Once again, the Phantom stopped being able to see her, and it went right back to patrolling as if nothing had happened at all.

Sitri crumpled over, wheezing from that encounter. When she caught her breath, she felt a little more clear-headed about her situation.

“Okay... That did something. Maybe if I could hit it harder... Or maybe there’s something around here I can use to help myself. I haven’t actually given the rest of this floor a good look yet...”

She rose back to her feet and sheathed her sword. She stretched her limbs and rolled her joints a bit. When she felt ready, she progressed past the safe zone on the opposite side of where the Phantom was patrolling. There, she found another large room with adjacent halls.

On one hand, she found a section of the floor covered by impassable spikes. On the other hand, she found a hall that opened into an abrupt drop-off, the floor just gone. She could not go left or right due to these obstacles. But directly in front of her, things were much more interesting. She could see another safe zone, and inside it floated something bright and golden. It was so radiant, she had a hard time making out what it was exactly.

Cautiously, Sitri approached the strange object. The closer she got to it, the warmer she felt. The air was filling with power around her. She discovered it was in the shape of a tear. It looked like someone had consolidated pure sunlight into something tangible. Hesitantly, she got up the nerve to try touching it. And when she did, it dissolved into particles of golden light and enveloped her body.

“It’s so warm... What is this?”

The light surrounding her only stayed visible for a few more seconds before it vanished, but she could still feel its boon. She felt the stress and fatigue of her trial melt away. In its place was a refreshing burst of energy. What’s more, she felt like there was something new inside her; a power that wasn’t there before.

“I definitely feel stronger... Was that tear thing some kind of magic power-up? I wonder if there’s more...”

Remembering that there were still other paths she hadn’t explored, Sitri turned around and went back to the main hall with the stone doors. She waited for the Phantom to patrol its way to the far side of the area before she went on the move. She raced to the rear area of the doors, observing the underside of a staircase climbing above her head. Here, she found another hall with a safe zone.

Sure enough, there was another tear down this path. Feeling more confident by the second, Sitri didn't hesitate to touch it. Just like before, it turned to light and swaddled her in warmth. She felt that new power inside her building. She couldn’t contain a few gleeful giggles.

“This is going well. If there are any more, I bet I’ll be able to lay into that Phantom!”

She found another hall she could explore on her right, and when she did, she found a peculiar switch next to a row of spikes on the floor. Beyond that, she could see another chasm opening up in between the tiles. But on the other side of it, she could spy the faint golden glow of another tear.

Sitri put her palm on her chin as she puzzled out how to get to it. Glancing down at the switch, she figured it must have something to do with this. She listened for the sound of the Phantom marching around, making sure it wasn’t on this side of the area. When she thought it was safe, she gave the switch a little kick.

A small bridge flung out over the chasm, marking the way forward. However, a ticking sound started up, and the spikes in her way did not recede. She quickly pieced together that the bridge was not going to stay up for long. In a hurry, she dashed back around the corner she’d come from.

Luckily, her Phantom adversary had not patrolled its way back to this side yet. She sprinted down the hall, now on the right-hand side of the stone doors. Sure enough, she found another hallway that led right to her destination. As she surmised, there was another tear in view at the far end of the room. The bridge was still up, but that ticking sound was getting faster, encouraging her to hustle even more.

Her feet thudded the tough wood of the bridge, fearing that it might snap back right out from under her. Her haste was rewarded, however, as she safely reached the other side and touched the tear. A much louder clicking sound echoed through the room before cutting off completely, and the bridge stayed just where it was. At the same time, the tear evaporated in her hands.

Once again, she was enveloped in golden light, but this time, something was different. She felt a sense of control over this power that wasn’t there before. Acting on her instincts, Sitri held up her hand and focused her mind on this power. As if she were directing the flow of a river, she found that she was able to focus this power in her hand. Clenching it into a fist revealed a bright burst of golden aura radiating from it.

“Oh, wow... Is this what I think it is?!” Sitri said excitedly. “I heard that Alphonse was able to use Lokomo magic once he got the Lokomo Sword... Is that what this is? Is that what those tears were for? Maybe with this, I can beat the Phantom!”

Sitri quickly drew her sword to check something. Just as the stories about Alphonse were told, she found that she was able to focus this magic energy around her sword. When she saw that, she felt so elated that she stumbled backwards onto her rear. She stared at her brilliantly golden blade, frozen in a mix of disbelief and joy the likes of which she’d never quite felt before.

“I’m doing it... I’m really doing it! I’m becoming like Alphonse! Hehehe...”

She became so entranced by her glowing sword that she nearly forgot about the Phantom. Watching it patrol by across the room brought her back to reality. But now, she felt like she could take on the entire world. She jumped to her feet and ran over to the safe zone that kept her protected in this wing of the floor. Seeing the Phantom hadn’t made it too far ahead yet, she crept back out of safety and once again struck its back.

This time, when her sword connected, a bright burst of golden energy shot forth. The Phantom collapsed all the way to the ground, dropping its sword and shield and falling to pieces. Sitri’s jaw dropped. She couldn’t believe what she’d just achieved.

“Wow... I really did it! I beat it! Now that I have this power, there’s nothing that can-”

She was interrupted by the sound of metal scraping against the tiled floors. The pieces of the Phantom’s armor were putting themselves back together, weapons included. Sitri felt like someone had dumped a bucket of water on her head, dousing her fiery spirit. It wasn’t long before the armored tyrant was turning around and charging at her again.

After running like mad, Sitri stumbled back into the safe zone to catch her breath. She observed that the Phantom was once again patrolling like nothing had happened to it. She felt confused and disheartened by her lack of success.

“Oh, no... I really thought that would do it... Was this not enough power? Do I need more? But there’s nowhere else to go on this floor. I’ve seen everything already. There’s no more of those tears... Is it really impossible to beat the Phantom, after all?”

All of her bluster was gone. She deflated very fast after how powerful she was feeling only moments ago. She didn’t understand what she was doing wrong. Those tears of light had empowered her with Lokomo magic, so she thought she could finally fight like Alphonse once did and defeat her adversary. But things didn’t seem to be working out that way for her. Was she missing something? If so, what was it?

Sitri sat quietly in the safe zone, trying to understand what it was she should be doing. She mulled over her new power, and she mulled over the Phantom and its behavior. Then she went back to mulling over Anjean’s words. After all that ruminating, something clicked together in her mind.

“Hold on a minute... Anjean never actually said I had to beat the Phantoms to get to the Rail Map room, did she?”

She replayed the conversation in her head a few times. All she could remember Anjean saying about the Phantoms was that they couldn’t be tackled head-on. She had to get past them and the traps to reach her goal.

“Wait... Get past them? So I don’t actually have to fight them! I can just sneak right on by! But then, wait... What was the point of getting this power from the tears? It can incapacitate the Phantoms, sure, but is that really all? Would I really be granted this power just as a way to buy myself some time?”

Sitri sat there puzzling and puzzling. She wasn’t sure she’d ever wracked her brain this hard before. There was a meaning to all of this somewhere. But what was it?

“Anjean said this trial would help me learn how to deal with enemies that are way more powerful than me, like Zoie. And those Phantoms sure are strong. Even with this new power, I still can’t defeat them. But then...”

Suddenly, her face lit up.

“Wait, that’s it! It doesn’t matter if I have the power or not! That was the whole point! I was so fixated on being powerful and defeating the Phantom that I completely forgot there were other options, like attacking its weak point and sneaking by... Just having power isn’t enough on its own. I need to really think about what I’m doing. Just like with Zoie... Even if I had more power, I couldn’t defeat him head-on, could I? So I need to open my mind to other ways of winning... Is that what Anjean was trying to teach me?”

She was sure she’d found the answer. That had to be it. It didn’t make sense otherwise. Sitri nodded to herself, feeling like the clouds in her mind had lifted. Now that she knew what she was really doing, she was ready to see this trial through to the end.

More confidently than ever before, Sitri left the safe zone and carefully crept behind the Phantom. When they circled around to the large stone doors, she stopped moving and held perfectly still. She waited for the Phantom to turn the corner, and listened for its clunking footsteps to recede away. Then, she turned and faced the overwhelmingly large doors.

She had completely forgotten to consider them again until now. Of course they’d be the natural way forward. She had been so distracted by the Phantom that she’d let them slip from her mind. Before, she was going to look for a mechanism to open them, but now that she’d explored this floor, she knew there wasn’t one. Instead, she readied herself and placed her palms on the doors.

Simply shoving them wasn’t enough to make them budge. They didn’t feel like something a human could move, at least not by themselves. But then she recalled that she had new power from those tears of light. Just like before, she focused this power into her arms and her palms. They began to shine with a golden aura, filling her with might she could never summon on her own. Bit by bit, she was able to push the stone doors open.

Through the crack that opened between them, Sitri could see stairs climbing up into the darkness of the ceiling above. She had found her way forward at last. However, the doors did not open quietly. They made a horrible scraping noise as they dragged across the floor. She could hear the Phantom rushing back toward her.

“Of course he heard that... But it’s not a problem! I don’t need to deal with him to win!”

After proudly declaring as much, Sitri started sprinting up the stairs. There was still more to this trial yet. And now that she understood what it was trying to teach her, she felt prepared to handle whatever might come next.

And of course, she felt ever closer to her dear ancestor, Alphonse.

Azure Sage

Join your hands...
Staff member
ZD Legend
Comm. Coordinator
It's been a half a year, but I'm finally ready to post the next chapter! I didn't mean to take such a long hiatus... I just couldn't pull myself away from video games. Oof. I hope to not let such a thing happen again. At any rate, it's time to continue!

Chapter Fourteen
The Beldine Rule​

Sitri bent over with her hands on her knees, wheezing and panting. She had reached the top of the stairs safely. It didn't seem like the Phantom was willing to chase her up, or perhaps it wasn't able to. In any case, she had arrived at the next step of her trial in the Tower of Spirits.

The first thing she did was examine her surroundings. She observed that this floor had the same aesthetics as the one before, with a new layout. There would surely be new traps and obstacles in her way. But now she had Lokomo magic on her side. She learned on the previous floor that it couldn't solve all of her problems, but it would undoubtedly become an invaluable tool needed to progress through the rest of the trial.

This time, the hall immediately turned to her left. It seemed to be the only way forward. She wondered if this floor would be a lot more linear than the last. Thinking as much, she began to cautiously walk, making sure to listen for the metal clunking footsteps of Phantoms.

The hallway was mostly straight, but after several feet, it suddenly veered off to the left again. And when she turned past this corner, she was dismayed to see the way forward blocked by sharp, jagged spikes sticking out of the ground. She had encountered such a trap before, but this time she couldn't see a way around it.

She turned around and re-examined the path she'd come from, but there was no other way to go. There didn't appear to be a mechanism to retract the spikes. There was also no space to step between them, and there was no way she could jump far enough to clear them, either. Sitri grumbled, frustrated that she was stuck already.

“There has to be a way to progress... Come on, think!” she told herself.

Once more she thoroughly combed the hall behind her, but to no avail. There was nothing on this side to help her. After mulling this over for several more minutes, a new idea struck her like a bolt of lightning.

“Wait! What about the other side?”

She strained her eyes, but she couldn't see anything on the wall opposite the spikes. But she did notice the hallway turned again, this time to her right. She scuttled over to the left side of her hall, pressing herself against the wall as close as she could get to try and see around the corner. Sure enough, she spotted another switch like the one that extended the bridge on the floor below.

“Aha! That has to be it!” she said excitedly.

Her mood quickly fizzled out, though. She realized that she would have to strike the switch from afar. Could she do that with her current gear? All she had was a sword. No bow, no slings, and nothing she wouldn't care to lose if she threw it and missed.

“Think like Alphonse... What would Alphonse do?”

Trying to keep herself from deflating, she thought back to the legends of her ancestor and his battles. In doing so, she came to a realization that she thought she really, really should have figured out sooner. She had just been blessed with Lokomo magic. If she could use it to empower herself, maybe she could do other things, like create a projectile from it.

Sitri drew her sword and tried to focus on the new feeling welling up inside her. A comforting warmth spread from her body, building up in the blade. A golden aura enveloped it, bending to her will. She then pointed the sword at the switch with the best aim she could around such a tight corner, and thrusted forward.

A disc of light shot out from the tip of her blade, answering the call of her will. It shot around the corner and struck the switch with a moderate force. Sure enough, she heard a click, and the spikes retracted below the floor.

“Yes! It worked! I'm doing it! I'm really doing it!” Sitri yelled excitedly.

She jumped up and down in place, hugging her sword close to her chest. Now that she was using the same powers as her beloved ancestor, she was feeling closer to him than ever before. Her confidence was swelling. Giddily, she marched on down the hall, ready to continue the trial.

Beyond the spikes, she found herself in a much more open hall this time. This one room was far larger than any before it. Sitri stretched her arms around, grateful to feel less cramped. Her relief didn’t last long, though. She heard squeaks and chitters nearby. She looked down the hall to her right and discovered a pair of spinuts futzing around.

“Monsters? In here?!” she gasped.

Spinuts weren’t particularly dangerous. They were small and rotund little goblins, only coming up to Sitri’s waist. However, they had spikes on their heads, and they enjoyed using them to ram into their prey, charging forward on their stubby legs. They had no arms to speak of, so if one dodged their charge, they were wide open. A beast easily defeated for one of Sitri’s caliber.

No, the problem wasn’t the monsters themselves. It was the fact that they were in the Tower of Spirits to begin with.

“How did they get in here? There’s no way they made it past the traps like me... Anjean would’ve wiped them out the moment she spotted them, anyway. So how... and why?” Sitri wondered aloud.

Then she recalled her history lesson with Mikhaeyla a few weeks ago. She learned that Anjean had restructured the Tower to protect the seal on Demon King Malladus. A fact that Anjean herself confirmed just a bit ago, even. But the reason it was necessary to defend the seal from monsters now became apparent to the girl.

If they can pop up inside the Tower like this, even with all the traps and Phantoms around, then the seal really is in trouble... But why? Why would monsters want to tamper with the seal? I know Malladus had monsters in his army, but...

Sitri shook her head. Thinking about this right now wouldn’t do any good. She had to focus on her trial. These monsters were just in the way. A hindrance. An eyesore.

She clenched her teeth. “These pests want to mess with the seal my ancestor worked so hard to create... I won’t forgive them.” she rasped, gradually becoming angrier the longer the spinuts stayed in her line of sight.

Moved by an emotion that was beginning to spill out, Sitri brandished her sword and started marching toward her enemies. The spinuts took notice of her at last, and squeaked excitedly. They tilted their heads forward and started charging toward the girl, aiming their spikes with intent to impale.

Sitri wasn’t having any of it. Gripping her sword tighter, a swathe of magic enveloped her blade. As if it responded to her anger, the golden aura sparked and quivered. She met their charge head on, swinging her blade in a forward slash. A burst of magic erupted out in a violent arc when she did, tearing through the spinuts with ease. The magic aura continued to rip through the air behind them for a short while before fizzling out.

The beasts, having had their skulls split open, didn’t have much time to cry out in pain. They collapsed to the floor in bloody messes rather quietly. Sitri stared at her handiwork for a few moments, feeling satisfied with herself.

This power is incredible... I know that the takeaway here should be that it won’t solve all of my problems, but still... If only I could keep this after the trial is over...

She allowed herself to feel giddy over her newfound abilities again. She wondered if she were fighting like Alphonse would. She hoped she was, at least. After some more moments relishing that feeling, she turned her attention back to her trial.

Now that the spinuts were dead, she examined this section of the room. To her right sat a large stone door, shut imposingly tight. It seemed the hall looped back in the direction she’d come from, just further south. This door was of a different make than the one from the previous floor. It was more like a slab or a wall. She could tell just from looking at it that pushing it open was not an option. However, there were a pair of pressure plate switches on the ground next to it, on opposite sides of the hall.

Sitri thoughtfully placed her hand on her chin. Two switches. Why were there two? There was only one way she could find out, she supposed. She went over and stepped on the northern one. Nothing happened. When she backed up off of it, it stayed pressed for a few seconds before springing back up into place.

She went over to the southern switch and tried out that one, only to get the same result. Her hand back on her chin, she pondered the meaning of this. It didn’t take long for her to realize that she would have to somehow press them both at the same time. That presented a problem, though.

“How am I supposed to press them both at once? They’re too far apart!” she groaned.

Deciding to test the mechanisms of the switches further, she stepped on the northern one again. It didn’t react any differently, but she paid extra attention this time. It sprung back up after a few seconds. She tapped it again, and again, and again, and then she realized the trick. There was about a two-second delay before it reset.

“Two seconds... If I step on the other one before those two seconds are up, will that open the door? But can I even cross the room that fast?”

Sitri gazed across the room to the southern switch. It wasn’t that far, but even if she sprinted, it would take several more seconds than she could afford to spend. As she was getting ready for a first attempt, she noticed a new sensation in the soles of her feet. She looked down and saw a few gleams of golden aura manifesting there.

“Oh, that’s right! Alphonse could do this, too, couldn’t he!” she said excitedly.

She did as she’d done before and focused on that new sensation of magic. It responded to her intentions again like when it covered the blade of her sword. This time, it filled her legs with energy. Using this magical reinforcement, Sitri kicked off the switch and crossed the room in an instant.

Her foot hit the second switch in just a single second, but as it was her first time trying this, she didn’t stop there. The leap was poorly controlled. She slammed into the wall, bruising her nose.

“Owch! Ugh... I should’ve practiced first...” she complained, grubbing her face.

Fortunately, the switches both remained pressed, and the stone door noisily receded into the floor. After the sound of rock scraping against tile stopped and the dust cleared, Sitri had a new way forward in the Tower. The hallway immediately curved left again, and the girl wasted no time seeing where it led next.

After that left turn, she walked a few more paces to find herself turning right again. She found another long hallway before her, but it seemed relatively empty. Intuiting a map in her mind, she realized the door she’d entered this floor on was probably also the center of the area, like the stairs were on the previous level. It seemed the halls on this floor had her snaking along the perimeter of the level. She imagined there being another staircase at the end of this stretch, and surely, another Phantom.

Thinking this, Sitri marched on confidently through the long hallway. She could see another right turn up ahead at the end of it. Her gut told her that she was almost at the end of this level. She steeled her nerves and pressed on. Just as her focus was taking complete hold of her senses, a surprising squeak at her feet made her jump.

“Wah! What was that? Another spinut?!” she yelped.

She looked around and spied the furry hide of something very tiny running across the floor. It stopped in its tracks and stared at her. Those beady eyes made her squirm.

“Ugh... A rat... I can’t believe even these things can sneak into the Tower of Spirits! That’s so gross...” she whined.

Wait, pull it together, Sitri! You’re supposed to be a hero! Getting scared of rats is stuff for babies! Or for like... a sheltered princess or something! Come on, this is nothing!

She turned her nose up at the rat and marched on, though she had to suppress a gag as she did. The little critter looked at her sideways but quickly retreated into a small crack in the wall. Sitri continued on around the corner, and in doing so, almost stepped right into another spike trap.

“Yeek!” she cried out, retracting her foot as fast as she could, almost stumbling backwards. “Man, that stupid rat distracted me... That was close.”

A few calming breaths later, and she was ready to examine this new room. The spikes blocked her way into the area, and it seemed to be pretty wide. It reminded her of the first level’s main room; there appeared to be looping hallways wrapping around large, square chunks of wall. On the very far end, she spotted a switch like the one at the start of this floor. It was inside a safe zone, and guarding it was a Phantom.

Sitri gulped. There was no other safe zone on this floor. If she were spotted before she could remove the spike trap, she’d have to run all the way back to the previous level. Considering the way Phantoms moved, it would surely outrun her before she could retrace her steps through all those long halls. She had to get rid of those spikes without being seen.

The problem was how to go about doing that. The only switch she could see was behind the Phantom on the other side of the area. She could probably hit it with a magic projectile like before, but that steel menace was in the way. Even supposing she could angle the projectile to skirt around the thing and still hit the target, such an act would call its attention to her without a doubt.

She stopped and observed again, like on the previous floor. She waited and waited and waited, but this Phantom remained stock still. It did not patrol at all. She scratched her head, wondering how to approach this problem. And then something clicked in her brain.

Hey... I just got distracted by that rat, didn’t I? I learned on the previous floor that Phantoms pursue suspicious sounds, like when the last one chased me after it heard the big doors open. If I can distract it long enough to take a shot at the switch over there...

Sitri nodded to herself. If she messed up, she’d be in deep trouble. But she had to take the risk. She drew her sword again and filled the blade with magic energy. Holding it in a thrusting position, she aimed down an adjacent hallway to the right. Gulping nervously again, she allowed herself to hesitate for just a moment longer. There would be no going back when she let it fly.

Come on, be like Alphonse, you can do it...

She took a deep breath, and thrusted out her sword. A burst of golden light flew out down the hall, crashing against the wall with a dull thud. The Phantom jolted to attention and immediately turned away, starting off down the hall to investigate. Hurriedly, Sitri filled her sword with another burst of magic, and sent that one off toward the switch, passing right through the space where the Phantom had just been standing.

A dead-on hit. The switch shone brightly and the spikes retracted. However, the Phantom was alerted to that sound, as well. Sitri’s hesitation was over. She made a mad dash down the hall, trying to reach the safe zone as fast as possible. However, the Phantom returned from the side corridor faster than she could cross the distance, blocking her path.

She grinded her teeth, but she didn’t have time to complain. The Phantom was already swinging its gargantuan sword at her, aiming to cleave her in two. Sitri jumped back in the nick of time, and started gathering magic in her sword again. Just like the last one, this Phantom had no pause in its attacks. It continued effortlessly swinging its blade at her. With almost no space to dodge, she was at her wits’ end. There was only one thing she could do.

There was no way she could parry a sword of that size and weight. Not without her newfound magic, at least. When her sword was fully charged, she grabbed the hilt with both hands and swung with all her might. The two blades rammed against each other, creating a flurry of sparks. In a brilliant display, the force of Sitri’s borrowed magic caused the Phantom’s sword to rebound away, and her foe stumbled backward a step.

Not wanting to miss this chance, Sitri focused power into her legs again and leapt under the Phantom’s reach as it was recoiling from the clash. It swiped at her with one of its gauntleted fists, but she was too fast for it. She dipped around its body and continued sprinting for the safe zone. Hardly even a moment later, she could hear it begin to chase her.

Feeling something huge coming at her from behind, she instinctively ducked down. The Phantom’s sword cut through the air right where her head had been only a second before. Shaking off a chill, Sitri bent her knees and kicked off the ground. She sailed through the air for a moment and then tripped when she hit the ground, unable to land with proper footing while in such a rush. She tumbled forward a few paces, and then vaulted herself forward again with her left arm, narrowly preventing the Phantom’s sword from finding its mark. As its blade crashed into the floor, Sitri was finally able to roll her way into the safe zone.

She continued to lay in there, wheezing and panting for a few moments. She looked up at the Phantom and was relieved to see that it looked confused to find its quarry had vanished. It righted itself and then marched back into place, guarding the safe zone from any would-be intruders, forgetting that one intruder had already made it through. Sitri heaved out a great sigh, letting the tension leave her body at last.

“Good grief, that was scary... I thought I was dead for sure... Anjean wasn’t kidding about how tough these guys are. I guess Zoie is gonna be worse than this if he fights me seriously, huh? I have to keep getting better and better...”

Thinking aloud like this, Sitri finally rose to her feet and dusted off her trousers. She sheathed her sword and turned to face what awaited her on the other side of the safe zone. It was another stone door like the one on the previous floor, blocking the way to a staircase. That confirmed for the girl that this was the end.

Nodding pridefully to herself, she strolled over to the door and cracked her knuckles. She felt her borrowed magic build up in her arms, and placed her palms on the door. With a great shove, she pushed it open. Bit by bit, the great stone gave way for her, and revealed her way forward. Feeling more excited than ever, she rushed up the stairs to see what the Tower of Spirits had in store for her next.

When Sitri emerged from the stairwell, she discovered a large, hexagonal room. The air here felt considerably more pleasant than the musty halls of the previous floors. It was almost like it had the same calming effect as the safe zones. She looked around and discovered a pedestal in the heart of the place. Enshrined upon it was a stone slab engraved with intricate detail.

“Wait, is that... the Rail Map? I made it?! So I passed the trial! Yes!” Sitri exclaimed.

Happily, she jumped up and down and pumped her fist in the air. She almost lost herself in her joy before a bright flash of golden light shocked her out of it. A few feet ahead of her, Anjean appeared, bearing a satisfied smile.

“Well done, Sitri. I observed your work, and I am impressed by what I saw. You have budding potential. I should like to nurture it further.” she said.

“Nurture it further? You mean...”

“Mhm. I promised you a gift if you cleared the trial, didn’t I? As a reward for your efforts, and in recognition of your family line, I shall make a special exception for you. Ordinarily, I would have taken back the magic power you borrowed, but I will allow you to keep it, so long as you use it for the betterment of Hyleigh.”

Sitri felt like her heart had stopped beating for a second. Never in her wildest dreams did she think she’d be allowed to keep her magic power. She was so stunned she could hardly respond to the news.

“Y-y-you mean it?! I... I can...” she stammered.

“Yes, you can, my dear.” Anjean chuckled. “You learned your lesson in the trial, I trust?”

“That having power can’t solve all of my problems, you mean?”

“Exactly. It will prove to be an essential new tool in your kit, I’m sure, but if you don’t use it properly, it might as well be dead weight to you. What’s more, used improperly, it could cause harm to those around you, and I know that’s the last thing you want. So I’m trusting that you will use it wisely.” she explained.

Sitri nodded eagerly. “I understand! I swear to you that I won’t misuse it! I will afford this power the proper respect, on my honor as a Beldine.”

Anjean seemed content with that response. “Very good. I hope to see you continue to grow from here, Sitri. I shall return you to the lobby now. Farewell, and good luck to you.”

After saying as much, she raised one arm over her head, and Sitri became enveloped by a golden light. Before she could blink again, she felt the pressure of being squeezed through a crack in a wall, and then she was back in the lobby, as though she’d never left. She felt momentarily dizzy, but she shook her head and squeezed her hands into fists.

“I can’t believe it... I really get to use Lokomo magic...” she said, as though she were dazed from that more than she was from being transported to the base of the Tower. “Alphonse got to use it too, when he first got the Lokomo Sword... I didn’t get the sword, but I still get to use magic, just like he did! Hehehe...”

An indescribable feeling welled up from within Sitri. Something that was so palpable and overwhelming, she almost collapsed. It was blindingly intense. Her vision was swimming and her head felt fuzzy. She didn’t know what to do with herself. She squeezed her fists tighter, and felt her new magic flowing through her veins. The sensation was intoxicating.

“I’m really doing it.. I’m really becoming just like Alphonse! Eheheheh...”

Sitri stood inside the lobby for several more minutes, quietly enjoying that feeling. For a time, there was nothing else running through the girl’s head but this gratification. Nothing else at all.

a a a

On standby outside the Tower of Spirits sat a public train, resting in place on the Spirit Tracks facing toward the Forest Realm. It was devoid of passengers, empty except for the engineer that drove it and his apprentice. They were waiting for a special passenger to return from inside the Tower. It was someone the engineer knew very well.

“Mr. Boyle, sir, how much longer are we supposed to wait?” the apprentice asked.

“Sorry, kid. Didn’t mean to drag ya into this on one of your training days.” the engineer, Boyle, said.

“Why are we going out of our way for a single passenger, anyway?” the kid asked.

“You don’t know the Beldine Rule? Guess ya wouldn’t yet, huh...” Boyle said, grubbing his chin as he gazed at the Tower. “The Beldine family is credited with inventing the trains and the railway system. So any time a Beldine comes to an engineer for help, we help ‘em, free of charge. Simple as that.”

“Wait, there's no such rule in the manual! I’ve read it front to back!” the kid protested.

“Yeah, it’s not really on the books. It’s kind of an unofficial thing. Honestly, it never really got used much until lil’ Sitri started running around. That kid saved my life in a monster raid last year, you know. I’m more than happy to uphold the Beldine Rule for her. ‘Specially since she does so much relief work. She’s a good kid.” he explained.

The apprentice didn’t look convinced. “That’s great and all, but is it really okay for us to give someone special treatment like that? We still have to earn a living.”

Boyle furrowed his brow, and was about to respond, until he noticed a figure emerge from the Tower. “Oh, here she comes. Let’s get ‘er underway.”

No further complaints from the kid were voiced. In just a few short minutes, the engine was rumbling and steam was puffing from the smokestack. When Sitri returned to the train, it was ready and waiting for her.

“Hey, welcome back, kid. How’d it go in there?” Boyle asked.

“It went great! Better than great, even! I got to meet Anjean and I got a lot stronger!” the girl said excitedly.

“Good, good! Glad to hear it! Oh, by the way, your lil’ dove friend dropped this off for ya.” he said, handing her a canister with a note enclosed.

On cue, Chino fluttered down and landed on Sitri’s shoulder. “Wah! Oh, there you are, buddy! Thanks!” She quickly read the contents of the letter, and nodded her head. “Okay. We need to go to Great Bay City. Monsters are causing trouble again.”

“Great Bay City, gotcha. Climb aboard!” Boyle said.

Chino took off into the sky, and Sitri pulled herself up onto the train. She sat at the second seat in the first car, and started staring at her hands. Boyle couldn’t help but notice, even as he went to the front of the train, that something seemed off about her. Her eyes had a strange glint to them he’d never seen before. She was smiling rather deliriously, and she kept giggling to herself as she opened and closed a fist.

“Is it just my imagination?” he whispered.

Azure Sage

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Already back with another chapter! I'm on a roll now. Hope I can keep this going. Now we're halfway through the second movement. Things are starting to take shape...

Chapter Fifteen
King on the Train​

Mikhaeyla faced a chorus of anxious murmuring and the half-hearted stares of nervous eyes. She had just returned to Hyleigh moments ago, and her first order of business was to visit the Council and update them on her activities. As usual, there were a certain bunch of them that looked uncomfortable to be in her presence.

Her faithful aide Rasta cleared his throat, briefly dispelling the awkwardness. “May I present Her Majesty, Demon King Mikhaeyla, to the Hyleigh Council.” he reintroduced, as was proper decorum.

“Greetings. It is good to see each of you again. It has been a short while.” Mikhaeyla said, her eyes washing over each of them in turn.

Anderson tugged at his collar, while Mabufu hastily nodded. Meanwhile, Darius sat with arms folded at his chest and a frown on his face. Llewellyn, on the other hand, looked pleased to see her, and smiled pleasantly. Mikhaeyla always thought her to be the most accommodating of the group.

“It is a pleasure to have you back with us, Your Majesty.” Llewellyn said. “Was your work in the Mystic Realm productive?”

“It was. Demon Lord Hawthorne will deliver fifty crates of food and medicine here by tomorrow. I trust each of you to distribute them to affected areas promptly.” she informed them.

Each of the Council members sighed with great relief. “Finally, our dry spell is over. Since the Lokomo have been out of sorts, we’ve been at the end of our rope.” Anderson complained. “The Ocean Realm will make good use of these supplies. I thank you for them.”

“Oh no, you don’t!” Darius snapped. “How dare you try to claim all of the supplies for yourself! Goron Village is still filled with the injured! We need that medicine most of all!”

“Wait a minute, you don’t expect us Anouki to go hungry, do you? We’re in a severe food shortage right now!” Mabufu argued.

Llewellyn pinched her brow. “Enough. Times are hard all over. We must divide the supplies evenly.”

Mikhaeyla grimaced at the sight. In her few hundred years of life, she had only ever seen this unproductive side of the Council. The members were elected by the people of each Realm, and each Realm only ever seemed to elect the ones who would fight for their own-- and no one else. It was frustrating to watch, but it wasn’t her place to interfere. All she could do was hope that members like Rasta and Llewellyn were able to make a difference.

“Your Majesty, a word?” Rasta inquired.

“Yes, of course. Let us step outside.”

Allowing the other members to debate over the supplies she’d promised, the pair of them left the confines of the meeting chamber. After Zoie, the Laughing Reaper, attacked Mikhaeyla’s niece, she’d stayed in Hyleigh for a few weeks to search him out. However, he never showed himself again after that, and the entire country remained eerily quiet. In fact, it hadn’t been so quiet for so long in a good while. Three weeks without incident was unfortunately unusual. This gave her pause. And so, she came up with a theory, and devised a plan to test it.

She would leave Hyleigh under the pretense of assisting Hawthorne with preparing supplies. When she returned, Rasta would inform her if anything transpired in her absence. And it seemed that her aide indeed had something to report. When the two of them ducked into the hall outside the chamber, his exasperation at the Council members had been replaced by an air of seriousness.

“So? Did something happen, after all?” Mikhaeyla asked.

“Yes. Mere hours after you returned to the Mystic Realm, Great Bay City was attacked by monsters.” he told her.

“Mere hours, you say? The timing is certainly suspicious... Perhaps it is as I feared, then.” Mikhaeyla said gravely. “The monster behavior in Hyleigh has been strange for many years now. The way they march with no regard to their own lives, as if in a trance... Historically speaking, that’s far from normal.”

Rasta swallowed nervously. “What are you implying, Your Majesty?”

“If my presence here was a deterrent for monster behavior, I suspect it means that the monster behavior itself is under the conscious control of someone. The delirium displayed by the monsters sounds like the effects of a puppeteering spell.” she explained.

“No...! You mean this is... All of the monster raids were orchestrated by someone? Is that what you're thinking?”

“All of the recent ones, at least. They’ve always been bad, but they only started happening on a near-constant basis in the past few decades or so. I could be way off-base here, but I can’t help but think...”

Her voice trailed off. This was a dire subject indeed. Given the time frame, and suspected use of magic to influence the monsters, the only culprit could be a fellow demon. The Lokomo used magic, too, but they had never been known to have any power over monsters. Meanwhile, her kind had always shared an odd affinity for the practice, even before Malladus’s time. It had to be a demon. It was certainly not Zoie; he was too young, and his appearances didn’t line up with the raids. But then... Who could it be? What was going on out of her sight?

“I pray that I am wrong about this.” she continued. “At the very least, it bears more investigation. I will continue to search for Zoie, while keeping this theory in the back of my mind.”

Rasta bit his lip, but nodded in agreement. “I will discreetly look into this possibility, as well. We should not inform the Council yet. If you’re right, only a demon could be behind it, and they’re sure to know that. With the Laughing Reaper still at large, I fear we may unintentionally sow the seeds of further distrust for our people.”

“Yes, we must be mindful of that... Ugh. What a headache this is becoming.” she complained.

“Then perhaps a bit of good news may alleviate it?” Rasta said, his expression turning more optimistic. “You recall that I said Great Bay City was attacked after you left? Tetra’s Pirates intervened and wiped out the monsters. There were no casualties at all.”

Mikhaeyla brightened up. “Oh! That’s wonderful! It's good to hear they’re still sticking around.”

“Mhm. They’re becoming quite popular in the Ocean Realm. Oh, I should also tell you, I had the privilege of Sitri’s company yesterday. She stayed with my wife and I overnight.”

“Did she, now? I appreciate how kind the two of you always are to her.” Mikhaeyla smiled warmly. “So, what has she been up to? I know she went back to Aboda Village to train after her run-in with Zoie.”

“Well, she came to me for advice. She’s worried about encountering Zoie again. She asked me how to deal with an opponent that uses magic, and that’s when my wife suggested she go to the Tower of Spirits to meet with Lady Anjean.”

This caused Mikhaeyla’s face to darken a bit. “Is that right... I take it she’s there now?”

“Most likely. She left early this morning. To be honest with you, she has seemed rather desperate lately. I hope that Lady Anjean is able to provide her with useful counsel where I could not.” he told her.

Mikhaeyla lowered her eyes. Sitri wanted to be like the Hero of Spirits, ever since she lost her parents and learned of her shared trauma with her ancestor. But lately, this desire seemed more and more like an obsession. The girl got into a fight with Tetra's Pirates because she was trying too hard to be like Alphonse and didn't look at the situation before she acted. That was worrisome.

If she meets with Anjean, I fear her obsession may only deepen. I know it's what she wants, but I'd just as soon keep her out of harm's way altogether. What should I do... If Sitri keeps going like this, another encounter with Zoie may be the least of my concerns.

Before she could voice any of this, heavy footsteps started echoing down the hall, grabbing both of their attentions. A hurried man soon rounded the corner, and he stumbled to a halt when he spotted them.

“Councilman Rasta! Excellent timing! I bear news!” he said excitedly.

“Speak, man! What has happened?”

“Great Bay City was attacked by monsters yet again, just a few hours ago! But those visiting pirates chased them off and saved the day again! No casualties! That crew is amazing!” he rambled.

Both Mikhaeyla and Rasta gasped. “Another attack so soon? It sounds like it happened right before I returned.” Mikhaeyla observed.

“Thank you for the report. Go and gather as much detailed information as you can and return to me, quickly!” Rasta ordered.

The runner bowed and turned right back down the hall from whence he came. This turn of events was most fortuitous to Mikhaeyla. She hatched another idea already.

“Rasta, inform the Council of this immediately. I should like to go to Great Bay City myself.” she said.

“You would go personally? Ah, so you can investigate your theory?”

“That is part of it, yes. But I also want to speak with those pirates again. I wonder if they... No, forget it.”

She did not speak her mind further than that. Rasta eyed her curiously, but nodded. “Very well. Please relay the details to me later.”

With a bow, Rasta returned to the meeting chamber, leaving Mikhaeyla alone with her thoughts.

Setting Sitri aside for the moment... I think those pirates really will be the key to unraveling this mystery. When they appeared in Papuchiya and intercepted that first raid, another one was triggered shortly after, though it was cut short by Zoie. And the same thing has happened here again. That surely isn’t a coincidence. Perhaps they’re a nuisance to whoever is masterminding these attacks, if there is such a person. I should like to discern the truth with my own eyes.

She raised her arm up, intending to use magic to travel to her destination. But then, she hesitated, and lowered her hand. A smile crossed her lips shortly after.

“Hm! I think I’ll take the train today. It's been a while since I’ve had a ride. Yes, I think that would be fun! And perhaps enlightening.” she said, nodding to herself.

Her smile became a little playful as she walked her way out of the Council building. She had already decided before she returned to Hyleigh that she would hide her magical presence. As a powerful Demon King, any of her kin would be able to sense her location with ease; the pressure she naturally gave off was just that enormous. Unlike before, she suppressed this pressure, so as not to alert the hypothetical mastermind that she had returned.

She also traveled incognito. Rather than her royal robes, she wore a light red tunic with white trim, concealed by a violet shawl. Her white knee-high boots were a far cry from her typical braided sandals, as well. Unfortunately, there was nothing she could do about her golden horns. She still stood out a fair bit, but she decided it was negligible.

The afternoon sun was hidden behind clouds today, so Hyleigh City was cloaked in gray hues. As if to match the somber lighting, there was nary a happy face in sight. The capital was the most well-protected city in the land with its high walls, but its people still felt the brunt of food scarcity and refugees. She even spied a Lokomo acolyte asking for donations.

I see that even here, the hard times cannot be escaped. If only the day could come where all of Hyleigh may look like my St. Versailles...

Mikhaeyla moseyed along to the train station, her horns attracting many curious stares. She quickly found a public train heading for Great Bay City, and paid her fare with a little something extra. There were plenty of empty seats in the passenger car; not too many people seemed keen to head out to a city that had been so recently attacked by monsters. Nevertheless, the unassuming Demon King found herself a seat across the aisle from a mother and daughter.

It didn’t take long for the little girl to take notice of Mikhaeyla’s horns. When she heard a small gasp, she looked over to see the child staring at her with big, wondrous eyes. Mikhaeyla smiled warmly at her and turned her eyes back to the window of the car. In just a few moments, the train’s whistle let out a shrill call, and the engine started chug-chugging along.

A giggle escaped Mikhaeyla in spite of herself. She really enjoyed train rides. She never had too many opportunities to take them, so she relished this moment. To her, there was something very novel about the concept of such mechanical fast travel. The way humans used their ingenuity to make up for their lack of magic was utterly fascinating.

Her moment of quiet whimsy was over soon. She felt a gentle tug on her sleeve, and was surprised to see the little girl had walked over to her.

“Hi!” she said, beaming.

“Hello!” Mikhaeyla greeted, flashing a bright smile for her.

“Are you a demon, miss?” the child asked.

Hehe. Wasting no time, is she?

“Ah! Ericka, don’t be so rude!” her mother fussed, calling the girl back to her side.

“It’s alright, I don’t mind.” Mikhaeyla assured her. “Yes, I am a demon. My name is... Mikha. You’re Ericka, huh?”

“That’s right!” the girl nodded cheerfully.

“My name is Amirah.” the mother introduced herself. “I’m sorry, I thought I taught her better than to bother strangers like that.”

“I promise, it’s not a problem. Pleasant conversation is one of the joys of riding trains.” Mikhaeyla said.

“You’re very kind... A pleasant conversation would be welcome... If only I could relax enough to share one.”

Mikhaeyla tilted her head. “Is something weighing on you? We’ve got a ways to go, so I don’t mind hearing you out.”

Amirah looked surprised. “Are you sure? I’d hate to unload on a stranger like that...” When she saw Mikhaeyla nod reassuringly, her tension left her shoulders. “Thank you... It’s my husband, you see. He works in Great Bay City. He was there during the monster attacks. I’ve heard there were no casualties, but I’m still terribly afeared for him...”

“I see... So you and your daughter are traveling to see him.” Mikhaeyla said.

“That’s right! I can’t wait to see daddy again!” Ericka said.

“Hehe. Well, I’m glad one of you is excited for the trip, at least.” Mikhaeyla grinned.

“Yes... My Ericka is... quite an easygoing girl. Sometimes I’m not sure she understands the gravity of what’s happening.” Amirah confessed.

“She’s still young. I think it would be nice if she could hold on to that innocence for as long as she can, if you don’t mind me saying.” Mikhaeyla said thoughtfully.

Amirah smiled for the first time. “You really are very kind... That would be nice.” Then she paused for a moment. “Come to think of it, this may be the first time I’ve ever spoken to a demon like this.”

“Am I not what you expected?” Mikhaeyla said, smirking a bit.

“Oh, I’m sorry! That was rude of me... And here I was, just scolding my daughter for that...” she said, looking ashamed of herself.

“Hey, hey! I heard demons live for a really long time! Are you an old lady, Miss Mikha?” her daughter chimed in.

Her mother gasped in shock. “Wha-?! Ericka! No!”

Mikhaeyla couldn’t hold in a laugh after that one. “Ahahahaha! Yep, I’m an old lady, alright! I’ve lived for more than four hundred years, so you two are both like newborn babies to me!”

“Wow! That’s amazing!” Ericka said, hopping up and down.

“Oh, Spirits... Please forgive my little girl...” her mother said, looking like she was about to cry of embarrassment.

“Oh, yeah!” Ericka said. “If you’ve lived for so long, then I bet you’ve met the Spirits! They’re really old too, right?”

“What?! Ericka, please! That’s enough already!”

Hoo boy, kids her age sure don’t know how to filter themselves. She’s so adorable. That said...

“What a fascinating question, Ericka.” Mikhaeyla pondered. “No, I’ve never met them, but they’re surely far older than me. Many thousands of years older, I’d say.”

“Aw, really? That’s too bad... If you knew them, I thought that maybe you could ask them to protect my daddy.” Ericka said.

Her mother gasped once again, but it was for a different reason this time. “Oh, honey...” she whispered.

What do you know? Perhaps the gravity of the situation isn’t lost on her, after all. Little kids are more intuitive than we tend to think.

“I’d be more than happy to ask that of them, if I could. But I think that job is better left in your hands, isn’t it? I’m sure if you pray to them, they’ll hear your wishes.” Mikhaeyla told her.

“Really? So if I pray, they’ll come get rid of all the monsters?” Ericka asked.

Mikhaeyla faltered for a moment. “That... I don’t know about that one.”

This time it was Amirah who posed a question. “Forgive me for asking, Mikha, but... Since you’ve lived for so long, I was wondering what you think of the Spirits? Have you ever seen a time when they’ve helped our people? I... I know I shouldn’t talk like that, but it feels like our prayers always go unanswered.”

“Hmm... That’s a fair question. I understand why you would think that way.” Mikhaeyla said. She took a few moments to think on a response.

Have I ever seen a time when the Spirits of Light directly intervened in Hyleigh? Not personally, no, but I do know of one time they did. The Hero of Spirits...

“If you’re asking for my perspective, then here’s what I think.” Mikhaeyla began. “Two thousand years ago, Demon King Malladus started the Great War and attacked the Spirits of Light directly. They couldn’t ignore that; they had to defend themselves, after all. But instead of defeating him themselves, they appointed a human as the Hero of Spirits to vanquish him. Why do that? And why did it work? I think it’s because the Spirits aren’t all-powerful. They watch over Hyleigh, but they can’t solve all of its problems.

“Think about it. If the Spirits did everything for us, there would be no room for us to grow. They were unable to defeat Malladus, but a human was. They helped the Hero of Spirits grow into a person capable of doing what they could not. I think that’s what their role is; it’s not to solve our problems for us, but to give us the power and opportunity to solve our own problems ourselves. Does... that make sense?”

After all that talking, Mikhaeyla was worried she’d lost the two of them. But surprisingly, Ericka looked enthralled by her words, and Amirah seemed to be seriously considering them. She continued pressing the point.

“Just look at what you’re doing now. You aren’t waiting for the Spirits to save your husband, you’re running to his side yourselves. Perhaps you have the courage to do that because you know the Spirits are watching out for you?” Mikhaeyla suggested.

Amirah smiled again, looking on Mikhaeyla with watery eyes. “Yes... Perhaps you’re right. You’ve really given me a lot to think about. Thank you, Mikha.”

“Thank you! You’re super nice!” Ericka concurred.

Mikhaeyla smiled her biggest smile of the day. “I’m just happy I got to enjoy such a riveting conversation. Now I’m extra glad I took the train today!”

Their conversation gave Mikhaeyla plenty to think about, too. The Spirits were guardians, but not problem-solvers. That was her impression of them. She wondered if Anjean and the other Lokomo would share this perspective. She also thought back to her niece again. Sitri wanted to be like the Hero of Spirits. Would the Spirits of Light grant her such an opportunity?

Whatever the case... It’d make me happy if Sitri would seek out a destiny of her own.

Thinking this, her eyes wandered back to the window. They were making steady progress toward the Ocean Realm now. As the train pulled her along, she found a growing feeling of anticipation and unease welling up from within her. If it were about Tetra’s Pirates, or her mastermind theory, or even about Sitri... Only time would tell.

Azure Sage

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Time for the next chapter! Here we get to see someone we haven't seen in a while, and we also get a callback to The Hero of Spirits again. Things are moving into place... :eyes:

Chapter Sixteen
Connections That Survive The Ages​

An icy wind bit Kuudo’s nose as she crunched through a snowy walkway in Kakariko Village. She was as determined as ever to hunt down the Laughing Reaper, and this time her search had brought her to the Snow Realm. She had no leads, and he hadn’t been sighted in three weeks, so it was all she could do to wander across Hyleigh trying to track down even a morsel of intel.

And for three weeks, she’d had no luck. It was unbelievably frustrating for her. Just remembering the way he’d attacked the Temple of Gears and relished in his depravity set her teeth to grinding. She was no less angry about it today than she was when it happened.

I can’t believe he’s just gone. Where is he hiding? And why is he hiding? I swear, whatever it takes, I’m going to...

Lost in her thoughts, Kuudo wasn’t paying attention to where she was going. As she rounded a corner, she nearly knocked over an elderly woman.

“Oh! Pardon me.” the old woman exclaimed.

“N-no, I’m sorry. I should have been more attentive.” Kuudo said, looking ashamed of herself.

“It’s quite alright. I may look old, but I’m rather sturdy for my age.” the old woman winked. “But what of you? You’re dressed awfully light for this weather. Are you okay like that?”

It was true enough. Kuudo only wore a light blue traveler’s tunic and brown boots. She at least had a white poncho, patterned with gray gears as the standard of her people, but that could hardly count as cold climate protection.

“It’s fine. I can warm my body with magic.” Kuudo assured her.

“Magic? My, you must be a Lokomo! I suppose I should have figured that out by the gears on your cloak.” the woman said.

“If you realize that, then pray, let me alone. I’m occupied with work.” Kuudo said, starting to tire of the conversation.

Every minute I waste here is another minute the Reaper slips through my fingers. Come on, take a hint, already...

“Is that so? What a shame. I haven’t had a nice chat with a Lokomo in ages.” she said.

“Then I guess you’ll have to wait a bit longer.”

Saying such, Kuudo started to walk away. But then she almost tripped over a little boy and girl, running past her to the old woman.

“Whoa, there!” she yelped.

“Ah, sorry, lady!” the boy said.

“Sorry! Hey, Granny, come play with us!” the girl said to the old woman.

“Gracious, you kids are as energetic as ever. Give me a minute to get these old bones over to the square. Perhaps I can just watch today.”

“Aw, come on, you never play with us!” the boy whined.

“I wish I could, my boy, but my body isn’t what it used to be. If only I were two hundred years younger.” the old woman said wistfully.

Kuudo, who was already making to leave again, stopped dead in her tracks when she heard that. Two hundred years? She could sense that wasn’t just a mere exaggeration to humor the kids. She whipped around and eyed the old woman suspiciously. She had no horns, and her ears were round, but sure enough, when she smiled, she could spot visible fangs.

“Wha?! You’re a demon!” Kuudo accused, glaring at her now.

“That I am! Just realizing it now? I guess we’re both slow on the uptake today!” she chuckled.

“What do you think you’re doing here? Kids, back away from her!” she warned.

“Huh? How come?” the boy asked.

“But I wanna play with Granny!” the girl said.

The woman sighed. “I can tell you must be an older Lokomo if you’re looking at me like that. Perhaps we’d better have a talk. Come join us at the square.”

Kuudo grumbled, but she nodded. She followed the trio to the center of town, a large open square with a bed of blue wildflowers growing in the center. These special flowers, known as arctic blues, were the only flowers that could grow in such a biome. Surrounding this garden of blues were a few benches and torchposts. The old woman dusted off some snow from the edge of the garden and carefully sat down, while the two kids started playing tag a few feet away.

“I suppose I should introduce myself. I am called Wisterya. Please, have a seat.” the woman beckoned to Kuudo.

“Tell me what you’re up to.” Kuudo spat, ignoring her request.

“I’m not up to anything. I’m merely living my life, watching my grandkids play, going to the market, and spending time with my family.” she said.

“Don’t try to fool me. I know your kind.” Kuudo growled.

Wisterya sighed. “Good grief, you must have been through something awful if you’re so mistrusting. Let me guess... You were alive during the Great War, weren’t you?”

Kuudo took a step back. “S-so what if I was?”

“I’ve met a few Lokomo in my years who looked at me the same way you do. Each of them lived through that war, and each of them couldn’t find it in themselves to trust demons anymore. And yet I’ve also met Lokomo who come through here offering aid, and they had no problem with me at all. I suspect they’re younger than you are.”

“And more foolish.”

“Hah! In all my eight hundred years, I’ve never seen anything more foolish than distrusting a whole group of people based on the actions of a single one of them.” Wisterya laughed.

Kuudo bit her lip. “You have no idea what it was like. What Malladus did to us... To this land... And you expect me to trust you after that? To just believe you when you say you’re just living your life here? We both know those aren’t your grandkids. Why make them call you that? To play some sick game of house?”

“Oh? But they are my grandkids, flesh and blood.” Wisterya said plainly.

“What...? That’s impossible. Those kids are humans. Enough of your lies!”

“Humans they may be, but they’re still my family. I married a fellow demon, but our daughter married a human from this village. Their children turned out more human than demon.” she explained.

“But... That’s...” Kuudo’s voice trailed off. She was red in the face now, her hands clenched into trembling fists.

“Is that so strange? There’s a rather famous example of a human-demon marriage, way back in the days of the Hero of Spirits. Such connections aren’t as rare as you may think.” Wisterya said.

Kuudo didn’t answer her. She couldn’t refute that, and it angered her. Her knuckles turned white from how tightly she wound her fists. It didn’t sit right with her, not one bit. How could the people of Kakariko stand having a demon live among them, when it was a demon that put Hyleigh on this terrible path? She was reminded of meeting Sitri Beldine, and felt another wave of rage wash over her.

“This... This just isn’t right.” she muttered.

“It may be your prerogative to think that, but it’s not your place to tell us how we spend our lives.” Wisterya said. “Nevertheless, I hope our conversation taught you something new.”

As if. I’m not going to be swayed by your lies, demon.

Thinking as much, Kuudo started to turn away. “If you ever do anything to harm the people here, I won’t hesitate to come and end you.” she warned.

“Haha! If I was going to do something, I’ve had a few centuries to do it! Farewell, then.” she waved with a smile.

Kuudo frowned and kept walking. Wisterya’s attitude told her she was no stranger to such threats from those of her ilk. It was aggravating, but she had to focus on the Laughing Reaper. A demon Wisterya may be, but she was still just an old woman. She probably couldn’t do any harm even if she wanted to... Right?

Should I just get rid of her now? Demons don’t belong here, anyway. If she does something after I leave, I’ll never forgive myself. She can’t be trusted...

Kuudo turned back to look at Wisterya, and saw her grandkids tugging at her arms to try and goad her into playing with them. The old woman looked blissfully happy, and so did her family. Kuudo imagined what the faces of those kids would look like if she were to slay her then and there, and she bit her lip hard enough to make it bleed.

No, stop it. They’re the enemy. I can’t empathize with them. I can’t...

She wiped her lip, but didn’t move from that spot. Many moments went by, and she did not move or think. Not until a man ran her by, sprinting down the street. He almost slipped through the snow as a reward for his haste. He ran up to an open stall on the side of the road. It appeared to be a local newspaper stand.

“Hey! You’re not going to believe it!” the rushing man said to the person manning the stall. “Great Bay City just got attacked again! And that crew of visiting pirates, the ones everyone’s talking about, they saved the day again! Isn’t that a crazy good scoop?!”

“No way! That is huge! Man, I wish those pirates would come up here and help us out, too!” the stallman said.

“Haha, when you get an ocean up here, I’ll let ‘em know! I’ve never heard of pirates that would hike through the snow!” the man laughed.

Kuudo’s focus was finally pulled away from her internal conflict. Great Bay was attacked again. That was twice in two days now. And again, those visiting pirates she’d been hearing of had prevented it.

Those pirates fought with the Reaper, though I only heard about it after the fact. If they’re still around, maybe the Reaper will come back to fight them again... I’d better go see for myself. It’s the best lead I’ve got right now.

She turned on her heel, but took one last moment to glance back at Wisterya and her grandkids. The demon was helping the little ones build a snowman in the square. It was a pleasant enough sight, aside from the revulsion it provoked in her. But, her true goal was back at the front of her mind. Just this once, she decided to let this go.

Just this once.

a a a

The train Mikhaeyla was riding pulled into the station at Great Bay City. At one time, it used to be the major port for the entire Ocean Realm, but ever since the Great Flood, it was forced to become a floating city, and the Spirit Tracks cut down the commercial ships to just the fishing industry. Nestled on an island that was paved over with cobblestone, many tall buildings reached into the sky. Surrounding them were wooden planks snaking out around the surrounding sea like a spider’s web. Most of the residential homes were floating there, while the businesses kept to the stone on the shore. It was many times larger than Papuchiya, the singular other town of the Realm.

It was here that monsters were said to have raided repeatedly in the past two days, but looking around, Mikhaeyla was surprised to see that the damage was very minimal. As she disembarked from the passenger car, she saw many onlookers gathering in the west side of town. Some commotion appeared to be going on.

Before she went to investigate, she watched Amirah and Ericka run into the arms of a large, burly man dressed as a sailor. He looked like he worked on one of the many fishing ships that operated out of the city. From the way they were hugging and crying, he must have been the husband and father they came to see. He was safe, after all. Mikhaeyla couldn’t hold back a happy smile, sharing in their joy from afar.

I’m glad to see he was all right. Now then, what’s all this fuss about?

The cause of the commotion didn’t appear to be violent or dangerous, but there was still a fair amount of yelling. Curiosity drew Mikhaeyla to push through the rubberneckers, heading for the shoreline. As she got closer to the source, she noticed that some homes and wooden floats were battered and dilapidated, surely the result of the raids. On one such float, she spotted Tetra’s Pirates, the very people she’d come to see. And they were standing off with a certain someone that had a penchant for finding trouble.

“Is that Sitri?!” Mikhaeyla said aloud.

She quickened her pace, and indeed, it was her niece who was staring down the goodly pirates. Not again, Mikhaeyla thought. The closer she grew, the more she could hear.

“How many times do I gotta say it? You aren’t the boss of us! We can stick around if we want to!” Tetra barked.

“Not if you’re going to cause trouble! I already warned you! We don’t need wannabe heroes running around making things worse!” Sitri argued.

“Speak for yourself! The only wannabe I see around here is you!” Tetra snapped back.

Link stood between them, both of his arms out as if to separate them. He looked awfully distressed by the situation. What’s more, the townspeople started getting involved, too.

“Sitri, I understand where you’re coming from, but we can trust these guys!” one of them said.

“Yeah, they saved our lives twice over! They aren’t bad pirates!” another said.

“But... They...” Sitri started.

“You’ve done a lot of good work for us, Sitri, but so have they! Believe me, they aren’t bothering us!” another civilian assured her.

“See? This is what I’m talking about! You have to stop jumping to conclusions!” Tetra grumbled.

“Well, you... What do you expect me to think if you go around calling yourself pirates, huh?!” Sitri yelled, looking like she was going to cry.

Mikhaeyla sighed. Her dear niece was trying too hard again. She didn’t know why Sitri had such a problem with the crew, but enough was enough. She swiftly crossed the wooden walkways and came up behind the girl.

“I think we should end this here. Nothing good will come of continuing this.” she said, patting her niece’s shoulder.

Sitri about jumped out of her skin. “Aunt Mikha?! You’re back?”

“Oh, hey! I remember you.” Tetra said.

Link smiled and nodded. “Mikhaeyla, right?” he said.

“That’s right. It’s good to see you all again.” Mikhaeyla said kindly.

“But Aunt Mikha, they... Ugh...” Sitri tried to say.

The girl seemed to become meek, like she’d realized her mistakes and felt ashamed. She scooted back behind her aunt, tearing up and hanging her head low. Mikhaeyla ruffled her hair and whispered some words of encouragement to her.

“Remember what I told you? Your time will come. There’s no need to force it.”

Sitri sniffled a little. “I’m sorry... I just... I wanted to...”

Tetra sighed heavily. “Sheesh. I’m just glad she didn’t start attacking us again, so it’s whatever.”

Link nodded his head in eager agreement, and the band of surly pirates behind them relaxed their shoulders in a display of relief. The rubberneckers and civilians all sighed, too, and left the area to return to their business. There was a fair amount of cleaning up to do, after all.

Now the group had plenty of privacy, with no unrelated persons in earshot. That was the way Mikhaeyla wanted it. She glanced at each member of Tetra's crew, reminding herself of their names. Gonzo, Nudge, Senza, Mako, Zuko, Niko, and...

Her eyes stopped on someone at the back of the group, someone who wasn’t with them last time she saw them. He was a tall, lanky sailor with concerningly deep eyebags. He seemed transfixed by her, as well, or perhaps he was stunned by her horns.

“Well, now! There’s someone I didn’t get to meet yet, I see.” Mikhaeyla said.

“Huh? Oh, that’s just Linebeck. You didn’t see him last time because he was busy being a coward.” Tetra said.

“E-excuse me?! Is that any way to introduce me? You could have at least tried to capture my manly charms!” the man protested.

“What charms...” Niko murmured.

“Did you say... Linebeck?” Sitri said, her mouth agape.

“Hm? Ah, have you heard of me? I’m not surprised, I’m sure stories of my daring exploits have made it even as far as this remote locale.” Linebeck said, looking like his ego was inflating by the second.

“Linebeck... How curious.” Mikhaeyla said thoughtfully.

That was indeed a name not unfamiliar to them. It brought Mikhaeyla back to tales of the Hero of Spirits; to her own family line, even. Alphonse did not defeat Malladus alone. He had help from his trusted companions, Layla and Regret. The two of them were Mikhaeyla’s ancestors, just as Alphonse was Sitri’s. They were the first human-demon couple in perhaps thousands of years at the time.

Layla and Regret had three children. Famously, there was their first daughter, Harmony. She became the Demon King that opened the permanent portal to the Mystic Realm near Aboda Village and started the pact of peace between the two worlds. But lesser known was the pair of twins they had after her, a boy and a girl named Calem and Rushia. Unlike Harmony, whose genes were predominantly demon, they were predominantly human, and did not possess magic or long lifespans. It was learned over time that halflings tended to be one or the other.

The twins took to the sea, becoming sailors like their mother Layla had been. Where their travels took them was lost to history, and not even Mikhaeyla’s family had known what became of them. But she did know one thing-- the twins adopted the family name Linebeck, the name of Layla’s father as well as of the ship she captained before she met Alphonse.

But was that just a coincidence, or something more?

Linebeck himself seemed to be staring at Mikhaeyla again. “I must say... Have we met before, ma’am? You look awfully familiar.” he said, scratching the small scruff of beard on his chin.

Gonzo frowned. “Really? Flirting with another one already?”

“To a woman you just met, even... Unbelievable.” Nudge said, his face hiding in his palm.

“What?! Th-that was not my intention at all! Surely you don’t think so low of me?!” Linebeck exclaimed, looking incredibly flustered.

“We don’t need more angry women chasing us... Jolene was enough.” Link said dejectedly.

“Ack! Not you too, Link! Going straight for the jugular, even... That’s going to sting in the morning.” Linebeck whimpered.

Mikhaeyla snorted. “Ahahah... That might be problematic, for a few reasons. But it’s alright, I believe you.”

“Oh, thank goodness... Wait, what reasons?” Linebeck said curiously.

Mikhaeyla smirked and, with a playful wink, turned her attention back to the crew entire. “Moving on... I came here because I heard you’ve been defending the city from monster raids. I wanted to express my appreciation to you all, and I also have something I want to ask you.”

“Oh yeah? What would that be?” Tetra said, looking guarded.

“You told me last time we met that you’ve traveled far and wide to get here. What is your impression of the monsters of Hyleigh? Does their behavior seem... ordinary to you?” she asked.

This caused a lot of puzzled faces to spring about among the crew. Sitri was eyeing her aunt curiously, too.

“Ordinary... Not at all. The monsters here are weird as hell.” Tetra said.

Mikhaeyla perked up. “Please, elaborate. I want an outsider’s opinion.”

Tetra looked confused, but nodded. “Okaaaay... Well, I think the way they fight is weird. It’s like they don’t even care if they die. I’ve never seen that before coming here.”

“Their eyes are weird, too.” Link added.

“Right, their eyes always look fuzzy and clouded, or something. Like they’re not in their right minds...” Tetra agreed.

“Really? All the monsters I’ve ever seen are like that. Is that really not normal anywhere else?” Sitri said.

“Not anywhere we’ve been, at least.” Zuko said.

“I see... Thank you for your input.” Mikhaeyla said.

So, they do think the monsters here are abnormal... Perhaps it’s as I suspected, then. This is not good...

Seeing the consternation on Mikhaeyla’s face, Tetra shuffled her feet. “So... Why are you asking? Is something going on?”

“Aunt Mikha?” Sitri also probed.

“... I have a theory. It’s not a pleasant one. But before I get to that, I have something else I wanted to ask you all.” she began.

Yes... If it’s them, I think it might just work out. In fact, they might just be my best bet.

“I’m curious to know why you all decided to stay in Hyleigh, even after the reception you got.” Mikhaeyla asked.

“So am I...” Sitri muttered under her breath.

“Now, I’m not rebuking you for it. I genuinely wish to know.” Mikhaeyla clarified.

The crew looked at each other, their confusion only growing. But they each shrugged, and said in unison: “Captain’s orders.”

“Tetra wanted to stay and help, and so did I!” Link said.

“Hey, when you put it like that, it makes me sound all mushy! Stop it!” Tetra yelled, her face turning pink. “It’s just... It didn’t sit right with me, y’know? I couldn’t abide sailing away and doing nothing, selfishly pursuing my own goals... Which I guess is weird, ‘cause I’m a pirate and I can selfishly do whatever I want. But right now... I selfishly want to do this. And I guess I dragged these schmucks along for the ride.”

“Hey, we’re with you no matter what, Captain.” Gonzo said proudly.

“And it’s not like we ain’t havin’ fun.” Senza said.

“Helping people feels surprisingly good... And we’re surprisingly good at it.” Mako agreed.

Link vigorously nodded his head again, beaming as bright as the sun. Tetra bashfully rubbed the back of her neck, looking embarrassed by all the loyalty shown by her crew. Sitri frowned, and her eyes sank to the ground again. She still didn’t look convinced, but she didn’t say anything that might have been on her mind. Meanwhile, Mikhaeyla grinned, feeling satisfied by what she heard and what she saw.

As I thought... They’re perfect.

“In that case, I have a proposal.” Mikhaeyla began.

She reached out a hand toward the crew. Sitri’s eyes followed it, growing wider each moment. Each of the pirates were the same, eyes fixed on her outstretched hand, and then on her. What Mikhaeyla said next brought all of their jaws to the floor.

“How would you all like to form an official partnership with me? I think we can help each other out.”

Azure Sage

Join your hands...
Staff member
ZD Legend
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The next chapter is ready! The second movement is moving toward its climax. There's three more chapters left in this arc. I'm excited to get to the halfway point at last. Enjoy!

Chapter Seventeen
The Rogue’s Revelry​

Sitri could hardly believe what she was hearing. She almost didn’t want to. Her Aunt Mikha really wanted to work with these pirates? What in the world was she thinking? She wanted to protest right away, but she held her words in. She was afraid of being admonished again.

“Official partnership... What exactly are you asking of us?” Tetra said suspiciously.

“You’re already working to defend Hyleigh. Now I’d like you to do so under my supervision, but only on paper. You see, the Hyleigh Council is aware of you and your actions. They appreciate your willingness to help, but I fear that in time, they may try to wrangle you into serving them.” Mikhaeyla said.

“Ugh, that would suck. We don’t serve anyone but me.” Tetra grumbled.

“Why would they want to do that?” Link asked.

“You may have heard by now, but the Council is infamous for arguing and deliberating without much action. Most of the members want what’s best for their own people and not what’s best for all of Hyleigh. There’s no doubt in my mind that a group of do-gooders like you will inspire them to turn you into their personal force, in the hopes that they can use you for their own ends.” Mikhaeyla explained.

“Sounds like a bunch of pointless politics.” Tetra spat.

Mikhaeyla continued. “If they get you in their clutches, I’m sure they’ll do nothing but argue about where to send you and you’ll never get to do anything meaningful again. My idea is to bring you before the Council and officially introduce you, setting you up to follow my lead. This way, we nip the problem in the bud before it can take root. If you agree to be under my watch, I’ll be able to guarantee you the freedom you currently possess to go where you want and do as you please.”

“Hah. Nice try, but if the Council tries to rein us in, we’ll just ignore them. Hyleigh doesn’t have a military, right? They can’t stop us from doing what we want.” Tetra said.

Mikhaeyla smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Are you sure this is something you can ignore? If you were to outright refuse them, they’d be constantly hounding you to leave. And I’m sure you don’t want to sour the relationships you’ve been building. It will only make it that much harder for you to help people. I’m trying to save you from the headache of dealing with that.”

“Yeah? And what do you get out of it?” Tetra asked.

“Your cooperation in investigating my theory. I suppose it’s time I told you what exactly that theory is.”

Sitri narrowed her eyes. Any theories of Mikhaeyla’s were news to her. She didn’t understand why she wouldn’t have shared them with her. And she especially didn’t understand why she wanted to share them with a bunch of pirates. It currently felt to the girl that there was a wall between her and her aunt, and she didn’t like it one bit.

Mikhaeyla looked around, seeming to confirm that no one but the relevant people were within hearing distance. Even so, she spoke in a low voice, almost whispering.

“Do not breathe a word of what I’m about to say to anyone else... I’ve had a sneaking suspicion for years now that Hyleigh’s near-constant monster raids are no accident. And now, Tetra, you and your group have confirmed for me that monsters don’t behave this way in other lands. That can only mean one thing... The monsters here are under the control of someone-- someone who is instigating the raids on purpose.”

It was hard to speak for a few moments after that. Sitri felt a lump in her throat blocking her from inhaling. When she finally breathed again, her lungs felt like they were burning. Her vision started swimming and her head started pounding. She was confused, but more viscerally and intensely, she was absolutely furious to hear that these awful raids may have been someone’s design.

“That’s... unforgivable.” Sitri rasped.

Mikhaeyla seemed to wince from how hoarse Sitri’s voice sounded in that moment. “Yes, it is. I wish I was wrong, but I don’t see any other explanation.”

“Are... Are you sure? How would that even work?” Tetra asked nervously.

“The monsters have been behaving this way long enough for Sitri and most people here in Hyleigh to think it’s normal. It’s been a few decades at the bare minimum. And my people have a strange proclivity for such magics. Even I could probably brainwash a monster or two if I felt the inclination. So the only conclusion to draw is that the mastermind is a demon, and a powerful one at that, if they can influence so many at once.” Mikhaeyla described.

“A demon... Could it be that Laughing Reaper guy we fought?” Gonzo suggested.

“No, that’s highly unlikely. I think we’re dealing with someone we haven’t seen yet. Someone who prefers to work behind the scenes... To what aim, though, I cannot even guess.” Mikhaeyla said.

“I get it now. You want us to keep doing what we’re doing, but you wanna hear if we find anything suspicious while we do.” Tetra said.

“Yes. Please keep your eyes out for monsters behaving abnormally, especially in the midst of a raid. If you do this for me, I will promise to keep the Council off your backs.”

“Uh huh... And how are you so certain we’ll even find anything suspicious?”

“I have a feeling you and your crew are going to be seeing a lot of raids in the future. You’ve been continually interrupting them. If this mastermind has a purpose, I’m sure you’ve become a thorn in their side by now.”

“Haha, I bet.” Link said.

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense. We did just have to deal with a raid this morning after the one the other day... I see what you’re getting at. Man, we just can’t stay out of trouble, huh...” Tetra said wryly.

“What else is new?” Nudge said.

“I suppose this is par for the course for us by now... But a gallantly handsome man would stay the course nonetheless!” Linebeck said proudly, while slightly backing away from the crew.

“Well? What are your orders, Captain? We’ll follow you no matter what.” Gonzo reiterated.

Tetra sighed, shutting her eyes and placing her chin in her palm. Link looked at her expectantly, his entire countenance radiating with his desire to help. Mikhaeyla looked confident that she would get a favorable answer. And all the while, Sitri hung her head low, quietly seething where she stood.

Why, Aunt Mikha? Why them? Why didn’t you ask me?

Her fists balled up tightly. She tried to keep herself from visibly shaking, but she was upset and angry. The wall she felt between her and Mikhaeyla felt suffocating now, and it was all those pirates’ fault. Ever since they arrived, they’ve been nothing but an eyesore for her. It was always them.

Why them? Why isn’t it me? It should have been me.

Sitri had been doing relief work for two years. She’d fought back raids with local militias in nearly every town in the land. And yet, never once did she experience a complete success. There were always victims, always deaths, always losses. And somehow these pirates rolled in and they fought off three raids in three weeks, by themselves, without any casualties to speak of. It wasn’t fair.

I’m the descendant of the Hero of Spirits. I’m a good fighter. I spend all my time helping people. I even have Lokomo magic now, and I didn’t even get to use it today because these pirates beat me to the fight! Why? I’m supposed to be the one who does it! Aren’t I?

She started grinding her teeth now. She couldn’t tell if anyone noticed, but she was caring less and less if they did. It just didn’t make any sense. She was the one putting in all the effort. She was the one who was descended from a real hero. She even impressed Anjean, the one who guided the Hero of Spirits. So why weren’t things working out the way they were supposed to?

Everyone loves these pirates so much... Even Aunt Mikha came to them before she came to me! Why... If I’m not the one who’s supposed to do it, then why am I... What’s even the point of anything I’ve been doing? Do they even need me? Now that Hyleigh has them... Does Aunt Mikha... not need me?

She couldn’t hold in a sniffle. Mikhaeyla jerked back to look at her. She’d heard. It didn’t help Sitri regain her composure, though. If she wasn’t needed... If she wasn’t the one, then who was she?

Before she could be beaten down by those thoughts any further, Mikhaeyla reached out a comforting hand and ruffled her hair. Sitri always did like it when she did that. It reminded her of when her dad used to do it, though the sensation was a lot different. Different, but still good. The gentleness in Mikhaeyla’s touch was calming.

“Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about you. I’m gonna need your help on this, Sitri. Are you in?” she said sweetly, as though she could sense some of what the girl was feeling.

Sitri was still upset, but she nodded. She wanted to be needed. She wanted to be the first person Mikhaeyla needed, but for now, this was enough to help her feel a bit better. She supposed she'd just have to work harder so Mikhaeyla would come to her first next time.

Her aunt smiled at her, but then stiffened up like she’d sensed something odious. The tenderness vanished from her face in the next moment. She grabbed Sitri’s arm and moved her behind herself. At the same time, Tetra and Link grabbed the hilts of their weapons and got fully on-guard.

Oh, no...

She knew exactly what was going on before she even peeked over Mikhaeyla’s shoulder. And there he was, standing there as if he always carefully selected which moments he wanted to ruin most.

“Hahahaha! Well, well, well. All my favorite targets in one place! Can’t beat that.”


Sitri’s hairs stood up on end and her blood turned icey. He hadn't been seen for three weeks, not since he'd attacked her. And now he shows up out of the blue? What was going on in his head?

“Oh great, you again. Where've you been hiding? Too scared to face us again, Laughingstock?” Tetra snapped.

“Ha! I love the attitude, even if it is from a small fry! No, I've just been patiently biding my time, seeing what Little Miss Hero Worship got up to after I kicked her guts in. And it was agonizing to wait, let me tell you. But when you dangle such good bait in front of me like this, how could I possibly pass it up?” Zoie rambled.

Sitri guessed that Little Miss Hero Worship was referring to her. What an insulting nickname, she thought, especially after what he did to Rena's grave. Just remembering that night set her teeth to grinding again. Her earlier anxiety was steadily being replaced by this anger. Before it could boil over, though, Mikhaeyla stepped forward.

“I'm surprised to learn you're capable of such restraint. But if you think I’ll let you anywhere near these good people, you’re as foolish as ever.” Mikhaeyla asked.

“That’s fine! I’m happy to start with YOU!” he howled with glee.

Zoie jumped forward like he couldn't be physically contained from waiting a second longer. Drawing his axe and gripping its hilt with both hands, he joyously smashed it down on the wooden float they were all standing on. His pink flames surged forth, chilling the air while still turning the boards into ash.

Mikhaeyla acted fast. Before they could fall into the sea, tendrils of her red magic aura coiled around all ten of her allies at once, and solidified. She leapt off the float and glided backwards gracefully, landing on the shore. As if they were weightless, the magic tendrils pulled everyone through the air along with her. They each landed rather clumsily on the ground behind her.

Meanwhile, Zoie managed to remain standing on a single piece of driftwood. He whistled in awe, and then grinned with excitement. With a loud crack, he kicked off the wood, and it turned to ash in his wake. He shot through the air at blinding speed, swinging his axe at Mikhaeyla in the same motion.

“Aunt Mikha!” Sitri yelled.

But there was no need for her to fear, as she quickly found out. Zoie’s axe hit a localized barrier in front of Mikhaeyla’s face, his flames exploding where they landed. Not a single ember managed to touch the composed Demon King. She didn’t even have to lift a finger.

“Hahahaha! Come on! You promised me a serious fight last time!” Zoie yelled.

“I said I might consider it. If you want it so bad, you’ll have to earn it.” she taunted.

Sitri knew that her Aunt Mikha was powerful, but even she’d never seen her fight at full force. She had a feeling that she wouldn’t do it so near a crowded area. The people of Great Bay were naturally starting to notice the fight, and they reacted just as expected; with panic and screams of terror.

“Great, just what we needed. Hey, bozos! Go evacuate those wimps!” Tetra ordered her crew.

The pirates complied immediately, and spread out across the shore to usher people into the city center. Linebeck tried to get out of it and find cover for himself, but Gonzo grabbed his arm and pulled him rather unwillingly along. Meanwhile, the captain herself hung back with Link, likely to help keep Zoie in check.

Sitri saw this as her chance. If Mikhaeyla wasn’t able to fight at full strength around so many people, then it was up to her.

This is what I trained for. My trial in the Tower of Spirits must have been for this moment! I'll show Aunt Mikha that she can depend on me!

Sitri drew her sword and rushed forward. For a moment, she thought she heard Link and Tetra calling out to her, but she ignored them. Gripping her hilt as tight as she could, she filled her blade with her brand-new Lokomo magic and pressed on. Zoie was in the midst of clashing against Mikhaeyla’s barrier, and his back was wide open.

“Sitri?!” Mikhaeyla gasped.

Her eyes widened with fear and concern. Sitri had been expecting a... happier reaction to her showing off her magic. But she didn’t seem pleased at all. Zoie, on the other hand, looked ecstatic. He turned away from Mikhaeyla, grinding his axe against her wall of magic as he moved. He swung to meet Sitri’s assault dead on.

When the head of the axe hit Sitri’s sword, magic fire burst forth again. But this time, her new magic power kept her safe from the nefarious effects of the flames. She was even able to hold her ground against his overwhelming force, and only skidded back a short bit. She steeled herself, feeling more confident now that she could withstand his attacks.

“Ha! That’s new! I gotta admit, that makes me excited, but you’re gonna have to wait your turn!” Zoie laughed.

One of the spikes on the axe’s blade hooked on Sitri’s sword. Zoie used this as leverage to yank her forward. Sitri clenched her jaw and focused magic around her stomach, seeing that he was already making to kick her. She didn’t want a repeat of their last encounter. But before his boot even made contact with her, Mikhaeyla slid one of her barriers between them.

The barrier expanded rapidly, forcing the two of them apart. In that opening, Mikhaeyla stepped between them and used her barrier to force Sitri even further away. Zoie didn’t seem to mind one bit, and he got back to happily hacking away at Mikhaeyla’s walls. Even though he wasn’t making a dent in her defenses, he still seemed to be having the time of his life.

Sitri clenched her grip on her sword, feeling frustrated and rebuffed. “Why... I can fight, too...” she muttered.

Does she still not trust me? Or is she worried I’ll get hurt again? Even though I have power now...

“Hey! What the heck was that? Could you always do that?” Tetra asked her, looking terribly shocked.

“That was amazing! But slow down. It’s not our time yet.” Link said.

“It’s not our...? Huh? I...”

It’s not our time? So he’s saying to leave this to Aunt Mikha? But then what should I be doing?

Seeing that Sitri still looked lost, Link continued. “Our job isn’t just to fight. Just take it slow.”

“It’s not just to fight...? I guess you’re right...” Sitri said quietly.

He is right... I don’t like it, but he is. Now that I think about it, Anjean’s trial was to teach me that having power wasn’t going to solve all of my problems. I guess I got carried away again... Ugh, I feel like such a fool... But then, what should we do? I don’t feel right just standing here, watching...

Link suddenly perked up and pointed to the air behind her. “Hey! A bird!”

Sitri whipped around, and her heart dropped. Chino was fluttering straight toward her, and the canister around his neck had a note in it.

“Chino?! Oh no, why now? Please, not now...” Sitri said anxiously.

Tetra and Link watched with great curiosity as the chunky dove nestled on Sitri’s outstretched arm. Quickly, she sheathed her sword and opened the canister. To her great dismay, it was indeed another call for help.

“Whittleton in the Forest Realm is being raided!” she exclaimed.

“What?! Come on, why do things in Hyleigh have to keep happening so much at once? Why not just one mess at a time?” Tetra groaned.

“What do we do?” Link asked.

Sitri didn’t know how to answer that. She looked at the note, over to Mikhaeyla battling Zoie, and back to the note again. What was the right thing to do? What would a hero do? What would Alphonse do?

Tetra grumbled to herself for a few moments, and then sighed. It seemed she made up her mind.

“Hey, Mikhaeyla! You got a deal!” she yelled out.

Mikhaeyla smiled and nodded at her. Zoie didn’t pay her any attention and just kept on fruitlessly whaling on those barriers. At the same time, Tetra spun on her heel and whistled as loud as she could.

“Gonzo! You and the boys hold down the fort here! Keep the people safe until we get back!” she shouted.

“Aye, Captain!”

Every member of her crew could be heard calling back the same firm response. Tetra immediately started heading for the train station after that. Link proudly nodded and followed after her, but reached back to grab Sitri’s hand. The sudden movement made Chino fly away, and she dropped the letter in the sand.

“You come, too!” he said.

“What?! We’re going, after all? I guess we should...” Sitri said.

“Mikhaeyla can handle Zoie, and if her theory is right, we might find some clues while we’re there! And if my boys stay here, they can take care of any other messes that pop up.” Tetra said while she ran.

“Okay... I have a friend who’s a train engineer! He can get us to Whittleton fast!” Sitri informed them.

“Great! Let’s do it!” Link said.

Wow, I guess we’re doing this. I don’t really want to work with them, but I guess it’s counterproductive to complain about it... And more than that, I want to be useful to Aunt Mikha, and the people of Whittleton need my help. I have to go.

Thinking this, Sitri took the lead so she could show them to Boyle, her engineer friend. On the way, she glanced back at her aunt, still standing strong and composed under the brunt of Zoie’s fierce attacks.

“Aunt Mikha will be fine. She’s a Demon King. There’s no way she’ll lose.” she quietly affirmed for herself.

a a a

Mikhaeyla was happy to see that Tetra and her crew were willing to accept her proposal. She was also relieved to see that Sitri was going to be out of Zoie’s attention for the time being. When her niece suddenly let loose with Lokomo magic, she’d nearly had a heart attack. It took a lot more effort than the others noticed for her to maintain her composure.

I suspect Anjean gave her that power when she visited the Tower of Spirits. I hope it doesn’t propel her further into her obsession... But I can worry about that after I deal with this overactive brat in front of me.

Zoie continued laughing, sending strike after burning strike at her with his axe. All Mikhaeyla had to do was move small but sturdy patches of her barrier where she saw fit to interrupt his attacks. This she could do without having to move anything more than her eyes. It looked impressively one-sided from an outside perspective, but Mikhaeyla was making those localized barrier patches small on purpose, so she could concentrate enough power to fully block his strikes. If she were to spread them out any more than she was, they’d crack apart for sure.

Still, he is very powerful for a brat. Where on earth did he come from? Taking this opportunity to bring him down is tempting, but I am worried about the town around me. The crew is protecting the people, but there’s no way I won’t send some buildings crashing down at this distance. What to do...

Finally, Zoie backed off for a moment, panting heavily. He slumped forward and wiped sweat off his brow.

“Oh? Is there really a limit to your stamina? What a shame.” Mikhaeyla said flatly.

“Hahahaha! I can’t believe I haven’t gotten you to fight back yet! Now this is what a fight with a Demon King should feel like!” Zoie raved. “Oh yes, this is gonna be good! Finally, I’ll get to kill a Demon King the right way this time.”

Mikhaeyla winced. “What... did you just say?”

This time? He couldn’t have...

Zoie froze for a few seconds, and then sighed dramatically. “Ah, hell, I let that slip out, didn’t I? Guess I might as well tell you, then. You’ve been trying to dig up my past, haven’t you? Maybe it’ll inspire you to fight me seriously!”

Mikhaeyla felt goosebumps crawl over her skin. Involuntarily, she gulped, and steadied herself. Instinctively, she could feel that she’d have to fight him head-on sooner than she’d prefer. With a grand grin on his lips, Zoie raised his axe and rested the hilt on his shoulders. He put a fist up against his chest and proclaimed the truth about himself at last.

“My father was Demon King Vanaheit. That makes me a Demon Prince, you hear? And guess who was the one that killed the sorry bastard? It was ME!”

Mikhaeyla inhaled sharply. She was so stunned by this revelation, she actually dropped her guard for a moment. Zoie did not miss her shoulders drooping down. He sprang forward, moving his axe into a swinging pose at the same time. Mikhaeyla was forced to dodge, speedily moving herself out of range in a streak of red light.

“Yes! I finally got you to move! Now we’re talking! It’s time for a real fight, at last!” Zoie cheered for himself.

Demon King Vanaheit... I remember hearing of his untimely death over forty years back... But Zoie’s first appearance wasn’t that long ago. And he claims to be Vanaheit’s son and his killer?! I wasn’t even aware Vanaheit had a son... Just what is going on here?

The mystery was only deepening. Mikhaeyla let out a long-held breath, and at last prepared herself for a more active role in solving it. Vanaheit’s death, Zoie’s wanton attacks, the supposed mastermind, and the monster raids... All of it portended something worse on the horizon for Hyleigh. In that moment, she prayed that Sitri wouldn’t find herself in the middle of it.

Azure Sage

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Staff member
ZD Legend
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Here we go! The climax is kicking up! This one was fun to write, but I'm really excited about unleashing what I've been cooking next time. Enjoy this one, and look forward to that!

Chapter Eighteen
Souls Full of Sorrow​

Whittleton was a small village in the north of the Forest Realm. It sat just outside the boundary of the massive woodlands that stretched across more than two thirds of the region, and it was close to the border to the Snow Realm. Link had rarely gotten the chance to see so many trees in one place before. His home of Outset Island had a forest, but it was nothing compared to this. He wished he could have done more than watch it pass by from the window of the train car, but he also knew he didn’t have time to dwell on it.

Tetra was up with Boyle, the engineer driving the train, barking at him to make the contraption go faster. Sitri sat in the seat across the aisle from him. She gripped the back of the seat in front of her so tightly that her knuckles were turning white. She looked incredibly tense, not that he could fault her. Whittleton was being raided. The longer it took them to arrive, the greater the chance of people dying.

That wasn’t something Link was willing to abide, either. He kept Mikhaeyla’s theory in the back of his mind. He’d seen his fair share of monsters causing harm and havoc, but what was going on in Hyleigh could easily be counted among the worst he could remember. If someone was doing this on purpose, he wanted to stop them just as badly as Sitri.

The sun was starting to sink below the horizon now. They’d been riding for most of the afternoon. Whittleton was awfully far away from where they started in Great Bay, which only made their anxiety worse. With the dense woods around the train starting to box them in, they couldn’t see their destination ahead of them. Meanwhile, the forest canopy blocked out more and more light. As the sun went lower, they went deeper.

The time passed painfully and quietly. When at last they made the final turn toward Whittleton, a discomforting red glow started peeking through the trees ahead of them. Link opened a window and stuck his head out, almost losing his cap to the rushing wind. He strained his eyes, and his heart sank lower than the sun.

Whittleton was burning. They could only tell it had been a village because of how wide the billowing flames were spreading. Smoke filled his nose, as did a scent he wished wasn't present; the unmistakable smell of burning flesh and blood.

“No...! We can’t be too late!” Sitri cried, looking out from her own window.

“Damn it... Step on it, Boyle!” Tetra commanded.
“I can’t! It’ll be my head if I get too close to somethin’ like that! You guys gotta get off here! I’m sorry!” Boyle said, slowing the train.

Link and Sitri didn’t hesitate to leap out of the passenger car and spring into action after that, Tetra following close behind. The train made a complete stop and started moving in reverse, backing into the woods to wait a safe distance away. Boyle was no fighter. It was better he stayed out of sight.

All three of them drew their weapons as they rushed forward. They could hear the horrible laughter of miniblins from there. The closer they got, the more their guts twisted up inside them. When at last they reached the village entrance, the gravity of the situation lay out before them.

The dead littered the ground in bloody messes, limbs separated from bodies in pools of red. There were more than they could count in a single glance. Homes were collapsed all over the area, still burning intensely. Anything that wasn’t broken was about to be. Miniblins and big blins stalked the area, tearing down anything they could get their hands on. There wasn’t a single live villager in sight.

“Holy...” Tetra gasped, clasping her hand out of her mouth.

Link couldn’t speak. The bloodbath in front of him tore him apart. Acid stung his throat, making him want to gag and throw up. His hands trembled from the sorrow of it all. In just a few short hours, the entire village had been razed to the ground. It was horrific, but if they didn’t take action right that minute, it was only going to get worse.

Quickly steeling himself, Link prepared to rush into the horde. He needed to take down as many as he could, or any survivors would fall just like the rest. However, someone beat him to the punch.

“How could you... HOW COULD YOU!” Sitri screamed.

Even as tears flowed down her cheeks, she gripped her sword and plunged headlong into the mess. Her blade started glowing a brilliant gold, just as Link had seen it do back when Zoie appeared earlier. When she swung it, an enormous wave of magic burst forth. It cut down a row of miniblins like it was nothing.

“Hey! Stay together!” Tetra yelled at her.

It was no use. Either Sitri was too lost in her fit of rage that she couldn’t hear her, or she deliberately ignored her. She kept marching forward, swinging her sword back and forth, swatting away miniblins as they charged toward her. Each time one fell, four more replaced it. It was impossible to tell where they were all crawling out from, but there had to be several times more of them here than they’d ever seen at Papuchiya or Great Bay.

Their numbers confounded Link more and more as he watched Sitri fight. His feet felt glued in place, his mind spinning with thoughts. Tetra was surely the same. Where did they all come from, and why were there so many? He knew each town had a militia defending them, makeshift though they may be. What happened to the one that was supposed to be here? Was it overwhelmed by the sheer number of enemies and wiped out?

They couldn’t investigate until they cut the enemy ranks down to size. There were too many questions, and no room to search for answers yet. But Link did have a suspicion in the back of his mind. Mikhaeyla’s theory was looking more likely by the moment. If that were so, there had to be evidence of it somewhere here.

At last, the heaviness left his feet. Link ran toward the monsters, keeping his eyes dancing around for anything that looked out of place. Sitri was furiously hacking down the miniblins, but now the big blins were starting to close in. He sprinted by her, darting between the enemies and interrupting their charge.

Just like the rest of the monsters he’d encountered in Hyleigh, these brutes didn’t behave normally. A haze was swimming in their eyes, dulling their sense of pain and eliminating their fear of death. The more he thought about it, the more it being some sort of brainwashing spell made sense. Even as he cut into the thing’s chest, it barely let out a grunt.

The first big blin collapsed face-first to the ground, unable to react in time to stop Link from slicing through its gut. The one directly behind it swung its club down, smashing its fellow’s skull after Link leapt out of the way. He jumped back in, standing on its weapon. When the big blin tried to lift it, the force gave Link a boost, and he jumped higher into the air. From that positioning, he was able to unleash a helm splitter on his foe, killing it instantly.

Tetra had joined him now, and she was dodging around the feet of two other big blins. She made cuts in their knees as she circled them, and they quickly fell to the ground. Swift jabs to the backs of their heads put them out of their misery. At the same time, Sitri was weaving burst after burst of golden magic through a crowd of miniblins. Blood spattered the ground around her like raindrops, giving Link a shiver.

That power... And she seems different now... Or maybe she’s just upset.

Link couldn’t hold back his concern for the girl. She didn’t get along with the crew, but he could feel she was struggling and trying her best. He started to call out to her again, but a flicker of movement caught his eye before he could. A pair of big blins that were stomping their way over to them suddenly stopped and stood stock still, staring off in the distance for a few moments. Eerily, they began to run off in the direction they’d been so enamored with.

“What’s up with them?” Tetra said, seeing the same thing. “Uh oh, they’re not after survivors, are they?”

That would be bad. Link nodded at her and started chasing them down. Tetra seemed to yell something at Sitri about handling things here while they investigated suspicious monsters, and then followed after him. Link was a bit worried about leaving her on her own, but if innocent lives were at stake, he couldn’t afford to let these blins go.

Darting through alleys engulfed in fire, Link intrepidly hunted down the straying monsters. However, the brutes didn't seem to be stopping any time soon. Before long, they were at the village limits. And the things just kept going.

“That’s weird... Hey, this definitely isn’t normal, right?” Tetra said.

“Mikhaeyla’s theory...” Link said, the Demon King’s words springing to mind once more.

“Yeah... My gut’s telling me we’re onto something. We’d better keep following them. Maybe they’ll lead us to something juicy.” Tetra said.

Link looked over his shoulder before he left. He couldn’t see Sitri from there, but his thoughts were still on her. She was fighting all by herself, and there were still a lot of miniblins left. He hoped she wouldn’t be mad at them for leaving her behind, but he didn’t want Tetra to go alone.

I guess I’ll just have to trust that she’ll pull through.

Thinking this, Link followed his captain and left Whittleton behind. The heat from the fires was doused by cool forest air, but he could still smell the smoke. Deeper and deeper they went into the woods, eyes trained on those big blins the whole while. There was a strange feeling in the air, one that set goosebumps loose all over Link’s skin.

He didn’t like this feeling. Something bad was ahead. He was sure of it.

a a a

Sitri could hear that Tetra said something to her, but the words were lost on her mind. She had to make sure every single monster was dead. There was no time to think about anything else.

Every time she swung her sword, the miniblins in front of her would burst apart in flashes of gold and red. Only bits of skin and bones and flesh and blood were left behind in the wake. Their lives were the price for the villagers’ deaths. But it wasn't good enough. It could never be enough.

Why did this happen? Why couldn't I be here on time? Alphonse wouldn't have let this happen. He would've saved them. I should have been able to save them!

She clenched her teeth and gripped her sword with both hands. Her Lokomo magic pulsed violently in the air around her. As the miniblins continued to crowd around her, she slammed her blade down, and a wave of magic ripped through all of them, even tearing away the dirt and pavement in front of her.

When the dust settled, Sitri was left alone in front of a gaping hole in the ground. She stood heaving ragged breaths, her lungs stinging from the effort. Tears spilled down her cheeks, making her eyes burn as they went.

Anjean said that having power won't solve all my problems. I wish it would. It's not fair! I have this power now and I still couldn't save these people! How am I supposed to be the next Hero of Spirits like this? I have to do it! Somehow, I have to...

Her racing thoughts were interrupted by more miniblins crawling out of the rubble around her. She growled angrily as she watched them snickering, lining up to die at her hands.


She leapt back into the fray, screaming at the top of her voice. It only seemed to encourage the monsters. Swinging her sword back and forth again, the air continued to fill with sprays of blood. But was that even any solace to the victims, or to the girl?

a a a

Zoie could hardly take two breaths without laughing wildly in between them. He was fighting harder than before now, completely determined to break through Mikhaeyla’s guard. She was still reeling from the revelation that he was a Demon Prince. Before she realized it, the sun had begun to set, darkness creeping in around her. Even so, the brat showed no signs of slowing down.

“Come on! Hit me with your best shot already!” he shouted.

I would have if I could.

Frowning, Mikhaeyla took a step back. Zoie fell for the bait, lunging forward without a care. When he tried to pounce on her, he found a barrier appear beneath his feet. Moving it with her eyes, Mikhaeyla used it as a springboard to send Zoie flying backwards. As he tumbled through the air, laughing the whole while, she raised an arm up to strike.

A flash of red light encircled her hand, and in less than a second, a powerful beam shot forth. It ripped past Zoie’s head, narrowly missing him. The tricky punk managed to jerk aside in midair just in time to survive. The beam of light kept flying on, crashing through some dilapidated wooden homes floating on the sea surrounding the city.

“Tch.” Mikhaeyla grunted.

At least it only hit the buildings damaged in the raids.

“Ahahahahaha! Now that’s more like it! Give me some more of that!” Zoie howled, landing on his feet.

He charged forward again with reckless abandon, a mirthful grin on his face. Mikhaeyla allowed him to close in again, and decided to start dodging his strikes instead of blocking them. Zoie’s heavy axe cleaved around her, only touching the air where she’d been standing. Slowly, Mikhaeyla continued backing away, dipping under and around those vicious swings.

She allowed him to get set in a rhythm for his attacks as she prepared to counter him. Before he even knew what hit him, she kicked his axe away in the middle of one of his swings. The head erupted with pink flames, but they could not sap her energy. Her skin was shielded by a thin membrane of her own magic, keeping her safe as well as empowering her. The force of her kick was so great that it shook the ground, creating a cloud of sand and sending the axe clear out of Zoie’s hands.

At last, he was caught off-guard. Zoie was struck in the chest by a pinpoint burst of Mikhaeyla’s magic before he had the chance to move away. Once more, a whirlwind of sand erupted into the air from the sheer force of her attack. Zoie careened backwards, his mouth agape like he’d had the wind knocked out of his lungs.

And yet, he started grinning again the next second. Mikhaeyla caught a glimpse of a pink aura covering his chest, and she frowned again, knowing he’d managed to soften the blow. He landed back on his feet and skidded to a stop, and then held up his right arm. With another flash of pink sparks, his axe suddenly made a sharp turn in the air, heading straight for him. The hilt placed itself neatly in his palm.

“Hahahaha! Damn, that was close! If I hadn’t blocked that, I’d be dead! This is what I live for! The thrill, the excitement, the risk! It doesn’t get any better than this!” Zoie raved with a disturbing zeal.

Mikhaeyla sighed and rolled her shoulders. Zoie was frustratingly sturdy, and quicker to react than she expected. This fight couldn’t continue. The people of Great Bay deserved peace. She prepared herself for what she’d have to do.

It’s a shame, but I suppose they can always rebuild. I need to take him down.

She started concentrating her magic within herself. Zoie seemed to sense that she was building power for something, and his grin grew wider than ever. He bent his knees, getting ready to respond to whatever she was plotting to do. But before she could finish, someone else entered the fray.


A blue-haired Lokomo girl appeared behind Zoie, swinging her sword at the back of his neck with deadly precision. However, he ducked out of the way and leapt back, closer to the shoreline. This new arrival seemed uncharacteristically furious for a Lokomo.

Wait, I believe I’ve heard of her.

“Are you Kuudo?” Mikhaeyla asked.

The girl looked back at her and glared sharply. “I am. I know who you are, Demon King Mikhaeyla. You’re next.”

“Excuse me?” Mikhaeyla said, taken aback by her coarse attitude.

“Haha! And just who the hell are you supposed to be? Don’t go interrupting my fun!” Zoie sneered.

Kuudo looked utterly flabbergasted, and then scowled more intensely than ever. “Who am I? Who am I?! Is that your idea of a sick joke? Don’t tell me you forgot about attacking the Sacred Realm already!”

Zoie stared at her blankly for a few moments, and then he shrugged. “Sorry, that place was so boring that I couldn’t be bothered to remember. Plus it was a huge pain in the ass breaking in there, way more effort than it was worth. I don’t even remember your face, so you probably aren’t gonna be any fun.” He made a shooing motion with his hand at her. “Get lost, loser. I’ve got a date with a Demon King right now.”

Kuudo’s fists were shaking. She almost looked like her anger was making her dizzy. “YOU DISGUSTING WRETCH! I’LL KILL YOU IF IT’S THE LAST THING I DO!” she screamed.

She wasted no further time before lunging at him. Zoie sighed and swung his axe at her full-tilt. This she side-stepped and, in the process, she created a chain from her own magic wrapped around her left arm. She tossed it around the axe’s hilt, and pulled as hard as she could as she slid through the sand.

Zoie, naturally, pulled back against her. But Kuudo went with the flow, allowing herself to be dragged along. She skated across the ground, her feet covered in a golden aura. Using that trick to hover just above the sand, she eliminated the friction between it and her feet. In this way, she tried to enclose him within her chain.

“Ha! Neat trick, loser, but not good enough!” Zoie laughed.

He let go of his axe and jumped out of the encircling chain’s reach. Kuudo hit the brakes immediately and chased after him. She swung her chained arm, sending Zoie’s own axe flying at him. He just barely managed to catch the head between his hands before the spikes dug into his chest. Of course, when he touched it, it let loose a burst of pink fire. Kuudo had managed to use his own power against him.

“Is it good enough now?” she spat.

Zoie landed on his feet yet again, the hilt of his axe now back firmly in his grip. As it was his own magic, it had little effect on him, if any, but the force of the explosion still did some damage. His face lit up excitedly as he brushed some grime off his nose.

“I take it back. Maybe you will be fun!”

Mikhaeyla stood off to the side, watching this battle unfold quietly. She wasn’t sure what her next move should be. Kuudo’s arrival had complicated matters quite a bit. Now she really couldn’t risk attacking at full strength, or it would mean more than just the residential homes evaporating. Kuudo’s life would be forfeit, as well.

“Lady Mikhaeyla! You’re here!”

That was a voice she recognized, and one she was well-acquainted with. Byrne had finally reappeared, running to her side in a hurry. The Lokomo acolyte looked exasperated and haggard. His clothes were tousled and he had bags under his eyes.

“Ah, good to see you. I haven’t heard from you in some while.” Mikhaeyla greeted him. “Are you alright? You look like you’ve been run over by a train.”

“I might as well have... I’ve been busy tracking Lady Kuudo all this time. She’s finally stopped hiding her presence... And I see that it’s because she finally found the Reaper.” Byrne explained, his hands on his knees.

Mikhaeyla frowned, glancing back over at the enraged Kuudo. “I was fighting Zoie myself until just a moment ago, but now it seems my place has been taken rather rudely. What do you wish to do?”

“I will assist her, even if she doesn’t want my help. I’m concerned about her obsession, but Zoie does need to be brought to justice, either way. This could be our best chance.” Byrne said, standing up straight and placing his palm on his sword’s hilt.

Mikhaeyla didn’t answer him beyond a nod. Speaking of unhealthy obsessions reminded her of her niece. How was Sitri faring at Whittleton? She had to have made it there by now, but there was no way for her to know what was transpiring at this distance. Gazing off in its general direction, she tried to reach out with her senses, hoping to get some sort of miniscule clue.

What her senses picked up sent a sharp chill down her spine. Something over there was bad news. In fact...

Don’t tell me... Are they finally revealing themselves?!

“I’m sorry, Byrne, but I must leave immediately. I will entrust you with Zoie’s defeat.” Mikhaeyla said gravely.

“Wait, what? You-”

She couldn’t afford the time to explain herself. Right away, she used her magic to open a portal to where she thought the feeling was coming from. It was like an omen of death creeping up the nape of her neck. She only gave herself time to pray she wasn’t too late before stepping forth to meet it.

Azure Sage

Join your hands...
Staff member
ZD Legend
Comm. Coordinator
Now it's time for the next chapter! This one was really fun to write... I'm so excited about this part of the story. I've been doing a lot of building up, and from here on out, it's gonna be paying off. Hope you enjoy!

Chapter Nineteen
Advent of Resentment​

Link and Tetra pursued the strangely-behaving big blins for a long time. They soon found themselves running along a stretch of Spirit Tracks cutting a path among the trees. The further they went, the colder it got. A disturbing chill wormed its way up their backs. Link could tell they were closing in on the source of this awful feeling. It wouldn’t be long before they had answers. That was what his gut told him.

Finally, the pair reached a clearing in the woods. This place looked like a long-overrun village of sorts, but the homes were all carved out of large tree stumps. Link had seen a sight like this before in the Forbidden Woods back on one of his previous adventures, but just like then, these homes were unoccupied and claimed by nature.

It was through here that the big blins marched, as if drawn in by something. They stopped at what seemed to be the front end of the ruined village, near another section of Spirit Tracks. The two of them stood at attention as if they were waiting for something, so Link and Tetra hid behind a nearby tree stump house to spy on them.

All of a sudden, the Spirit Tracks in front of them started to flicker, as if they were disappearing. Link had to cover his mouth to hold in a gasp. After several moments of watching the Tracks flash like a dying flame on a torch, they seemed to return to normal. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and it didn’t seem like Tetra could, either.

Mikhaeyla told us the Spirit Tracks were created to seal away an evil Demon King. What’s going on?

“Good. Finally, some results.”

Nearly jumping from the surprise, Link and Tetra turned their gaze to the source of the voice. It was a tall, well-groomed man in a green suit. His hair was a deep orange, matched by his eyes and the cravat puffing out from his collar. Oddly, he had two green bowler hats on his head, sitting lopsided on the right and left sides above his ears. How they stayed put baffled Link’s mind. However, his focus was pulled back by what the man said next.

“So Whittleton was a success, after all... That means Mayscore is likely irrelevant... Papuchiya is likely also irrelevant... Great Bay and Kakariko are still strong possibilities...”

Link and Tetra exchanged sordid looks. Whatever this man was muttering about, it was abundantly clear that he was holding himself responsible for these events. He had to be the supposed monster mastermind. Mikhaeyla's theory had been proven true. For a brief moment, Link wondered how it was so easy for them to find him, much less so quickly after hearing about him. But ultimately, it didn't change what had to be done. There was no further question about what the pair would do next.

They had to bring this man down, at any cost.

Stealthily, Link and Tetra drew their weapons and rushed forward. The man and the big blins had their backs to them, so the timing was optimal. Right as they came up behind them, Link knelt down and raised his shield over his head. Tetra used it as a stepping stone to leap within striking range of the two blins. In a single motion, she cut through the backs of both their necks.

The man spun around when he heard the movement, looking surprised. Link was already swinging for him, his blade a mere inch from his chest. But before it could connect, his body dissipated into a violet haze. Only the big blins ended up dead.

The fact that he used magic, along with his long ears, identified the mastermind as a demon. Just as Mikhaeyla predicted. What he was after, though, was still unclear. Link turned in place, keeping an eye out for any sudden movements. At last, the man rematerialized a few feet away from them, within the ruined settlement. He pushed a pair of brown spectacles up his nose, glaring threateningly at the two of them.

“Well, now... It seems I nearly fell victim to a trap of my own making. How ironic. The rumors do you justice, after all.” he rasped.

“Underestimate us at your own funeral, pal.” Tetra spat. “Now start talking. Who the hell are you? You're the one causing the raids, aren't you?”

“His own trap... Tetra, he lured us here.” Link said.

“How very astute. Yes, it was a simple matter to call a few monsters to my side where you could see them react to it. I expected your curiosity to lead you on a chase, after which I planned to eliminate you. I’ve had quite enough of you worms meddling with my plans, despite the fact that you were none the wiser to it.” the man harshly explained.

“Ha! So we were a thorn in your side, after all. Getting in the way of megalomaniac nutjobs like you is what we do best! So on that note, I’ll ask again-- what the hell are you up to?” Tetra said.

“... You possess long ears, but you aren't demons. How revolting. You must have come from very far away; so far that such a characteristic can manifest in human genetics independent of us.” he observed to himself.

“Hey! Don't ignore me, asshole! I'm talking to you!” Tetra barked, pointing her cutlass at him.

The man frowned. “And why should I care? I have nothing to explain to those who are about to die.”

As soon as he was finished speaking, the ground at Tetra’s feet split in two. If Link’s instincts hadn’t screamed at him to defend her, she would have surely been rent apart. His mirror shield valiantly reflected the violet burst of magic tearing away at them. The fight had already begun, and it was apparent they’d need to stake their lives on it.

The man scoffed, seeing his first attack had failed. With a slight flick of his wrist, three more waves of magic came whirling at them. Luckily, Link and Tetra had finished composing themselves and leapt away in time. The man’s magic devastated the ground where they’d been standing, making it clear that they couldn’t afford to be hit even once.

Fast on his feet, Link held his shield at the ready and charged forward. Now on guard, the man bent his knees and lunged to meet him, his right arm covered in a swirling drill-like aura. He reached out, trying to break the mirror coating on his shield. Link managed to parry this, forcing him to stagger back. However, his body turned into fog and he disappeared again before Link could follow up.

The man reappeared directly behind Link. Sensing a chill down his spine, he ducked under an arm sweep and leapt aside to avoid a second one. Tetra had come up behind the man now, and deftly aimed her cutlass for his neck. But the man shifted into haze yet again. Tetra reeled back, expecting him to come at her from her blind spots. But instead, the man reappeared where he’d been standing.

Tetra wasn’t ready for that twist. She’d been outwitted. The man tried to plunge his drill-like arm through her chest, but she barely managed to block it with the flat part of her cutlass before his attack connected. Her weapon shattered, and she was sent flying through the air a good distance away.

“No!” Link yelled.

His captain had survived, but was heavily wounded. Shrapnel from her broken blade and tendrils of magic had cut through her arms. She had hit the ground hard, too, and likely wasn’t going to be getting up for a while. Link firmly planted himself between her and the man, glaring angrily. The fight was on his shoulders now.

“Fragile as ever. You humans are absolutely devoid of value. And you have the audacity to stand before me as you are, even still?” the man scorned.

Link didn’t respond verbally. He gritted his teeth and strengthened his grip on his sword. Standing tall, he brandished his weapon at the man, determined to defeat him and protect his captain.

The man’s expression filled with anger. “How disgusting. The day when your kind ceases to walk this land can’t come soon enough.”

Once again, rapid-firing tendrils of magic shot out from the man at Link. He evaded through the first wave of them, and reflected even more back with his shield. The magic dissipated before it touched the man, and he charged forward again. Both of his arms were covered in the drill spell now. Link girded himself for the next move.

The man thrusted his right arm first. Link parried this strike, but the man held his ground this time. With almost no delay, he thrusted his left arm straight at Link’s chest. Expecting this outcome, Link shifted his body aside. His right shoulder caught a little of the spinning tendrils, and he felt the magic slice into his skin like razors. But he tanked through the pain and swung his sword with full might.

His blade met its mark, but just barely. The man leapt back in time, escaping with just a scratch. But that scratch seemed to utterly enrage him. Veins bulged on his forehead as his entire frame shook. The air around him started to crackle with sparks of a disconcerting violet hue.


The drill spell wrapped around the man’s arms once more, but the spiraling waves of aura had expanded greatly in width and intensity. Link’s skin prickled all over, sensing something big coming. He sheathed his sword and held up his shield with both hands now. Tetra was still behind him, laying sprawled on the ground and groaning in agony. He had to block this next attack even at the cost of his life.

The man slammed his arms together, and the drills violently mixed together. With the two spirals spinning in opposite directions, they clashed against each other before finally blasting forward explosively. This massive burst of magic shredded away at the ground, and it barreled right for Link. Taking a deep breath, he braced for pain and met it head-on.

Link’s arms felt like they were going to snap in two. The impact of such a monstrous spell colliding with his shield pushed him back several feet, coming dangerously close to the defenseless Tetra. His boots dug into the dirt, and he pushed back with every ounce of strength he could muster. Letting out a howl that scratched his throat, Link shoved and shoved until finally, his mirror shield began glowing.

With a brilliant flash of light, he managed to reflect that massive blast of energy. He had no control though, and it veered off into the woods, taking down a swathe of trees as it passed. The toll on his body made him feel the same as those poor eviscerated flora. He could scarcely stand now. His legs wobbled, but he refused to let them give out. Not yet.

“Unbelievable... To think a human worm managed to reflect such a spell. This is unthinkable... And unforgivable. I will not allow you to mock my prowess any further, you meddlesome wretch.”

Taking Link’s survival personally, the man stalked toward him, his arms once again covered in the drill spell. Link’s hands felt glued to his shield. They were so numb that he couldn’t peel them away and reach for his sword. It was likely they’d been broken from the force of that attack. Even still, he stood in place and stared down his adversary. As long as there was still someone to protect, he would not run.

I can’t let him get Tetra. Even if I die here, I won’t allow that. Not ever. This man needs to be brought down, but it doesn't have to be me. Right now, this is what I’m meant to do. I can feel it.

Completely unafraid, Link steeled himself for the man’s next attack. But before it could come, a bright flash of red light filled the air around them, snuffing out the drills. This light brought a sense of warmth and calm that washed over Link, and his arms started knitting themselves back in shape. And in the next moment, a new person was standing in between him and the man. A person Link couldn’t have been more relieved to see.

“Mikhaeyla! You saved us again!” Link said.

The kindly Demon King looked back at him and smiled sweetly. “I will save you as many times as it takes. Hyleigh can’t afford to lose you. I am proud of your efforts, truly. You’ve exceeded my expectations. It seems my trust in you was well-placed.”

“Damn it all... I didn’t realize you had returned to the Physical Realm. The last thing I need is you breathing down my neck.” the man cursed.

Mikhaeyla fully turned to face him now. Link could tell that her entire countenance was swelling with rage. He took this opportunity to free his newly-healed arms from his shield grip and tend to Tetra. He was overjoyed to see that her injuries had been treated by that red light, as well. It must have been a healing spell of some sort.

“Ugh... I feel so pathetic. Can’t believe I let that pasty joker get the drop on me like that...” Tetra grumbled, allowing Link to help her sit up.

“I’m just glad you’re alive.” Link said.

“Right back at ya, buddy. Thanks for protecting me again. I owe you one.” Tetra said, patting his shoulder.

The two stood up, with Tetra’s arm draped over Link’s shoulders for support. Their turn was up. It was finally time for them to see what a Demon King could be capable of. And even though they’d become accustomed to Mikhaeyla’s kindness, they couldn’t help but gulp nervously as they watched her square off with the mastermind. This was the first time they’d seen her fury, and it was becoming more frightening by the second.

“Demon King Mikhaeyla...” the man began. “You and your family tainted your pure demon heritage with the blood of humans, and even now you continue to disgrace yourself by aiding them. But traitorous as you are, you are still powerful. I cannot afford to cross you right now.”

“Such horrific bile you spout... I don’t know how such strong resentment against humans grew in you, but I feel disappointed in myself for not eradicating it fully. Especially in one of your station, Demon Lord Beelzebub.” Mikhaeyla said.

The mastermind grimaced, his identity now revealed to his enemies. “As I feared, you do recognize me... Yet another reason why I did not want to cross you yet. The fact that I couldn’t sense your presence until now must mean you’d been hiding it on purpose.”

“You’re correct. I suspected a rat may be skulking around in the shadows, and now that I’ve found you, my theory has been confirmed. What happened to you, Beelzebub? You were thought to have gone missing over forty years ago. Is this what you’ve been up to all this time?” Mikhaeyla interrogated.

“Hmph. Since you’ve smoked me out, I suppose I can deign to tell you.” Beelzebub scoffed. “Listen well, you vile progeny of past mistakes! Hyleigh’s days are numbered. I am close to discovering how to break the Spirit Tracks, and when I do, I will revive Demon King Malladus, the greatest of our kind to ever live! And together, he and I will finish what he started and wipe out all of those disgusting insects you know as humans, and all of you filthy traitors that support them!”

Link and Tetra felt their jaws fall. The evil Demon King that was sealed away by the Hero of Spirits over two thousand years ago was on the verge of being set free? They only heard the story of Hyleigh’s history recently, but the direness of the situation wasn’t lost on them. They looked at each other, worry knitting into both of their brows.

This is escalating a lot... We can’t ignore this. I shouldn’t be standing around, I need to help-

Link’s thoughts were interrupted. He felt frozen in place, like if he dared to breathe he’d suffer for it. This overwhelming, suffocating terror dug into his bones with a fierce jolt. And it was emanating from Mikhaeyla.

“I see. If that is your plan, there is no further need for words. I will kill you without mercy.”

The ground at Mikhaeyla’s feet cracked and the air around her rumbled. The pressure she was emitting was so intense, it was forcing bits of rubble in her vicinity to float up into the air. Her demeanor remained calm and composed, but her voice was dripping with bate. Link remembered that she had previously refused to fight at full strength because she was close to populated areas, but out here in the depths of the forest, there was no such concern. She was not going to restrain herself now.

Her shawl was ripped away from her by churning winds, as if her fury was bleeding into the surroundings. A ring of red aura encircled her feet, and the ground shook apart with an intense pulse of air that knocked Link and Tetra on their bottoms. Within this ring, her body began transforming.

The traveler's tunic and boots Mikhaeyla wore were devoured by a red haze, replaced with a black battle dress embroidered with red patterns that were evocative of spider lilies. The back of this dress was open in a wide v-cut, and from there, two black bat-like wings, each as big as she was, sprouted from her skin. Her golden horns were dyed as black as the night around them, and streaks of this black appeared within the pinks of her hair, as well, completing the change. As if to announce to her foes that their end had come, another burst of pressure ripped through the air around her.

Link and Tetra staggered to their feet, instinctively understanding that they needed to create some distance, and fast. Even still, they could hardly tear their eyes away from her. She was mesmerizing to behold. Utterly terrifying, yet hauntingly beautiful at the same time. Link swallowed dryly, feeling the weight of a Demon King’s power firsthand. The warmth from her magic was replaced with a cold ferocity that almost seemed uncharacteristic of what he knew of her. He was once again reminded of a certain dark sorcerer he came to blows with beneath the Great Sea.

“Using your magic transformation right out of the gate... You must truly consider me a threat!” Beelzebub gloated. “Just the sight of a traitor like you using traditional demon magic sickens me to my core... But unfortunately for you, I have no intention of sticking around to face your might!”

Beelzebub raised his arm, and a vortex of violet light appeared behind him. He was trying to slip away, unwilling to face off with her. But Mikhaeyla moved faster than he could blink. With a single swipe of her arm, the vortex was erased from sight and Beelzebub was sent crashing into a tree at the edge of the ruined settlement. The aftershock of his impact against it knocked a whole row of them down.

“You will not flee. If you can boast of your villainy so proudly, surely you can face your annihilation with your head held high.” Mikhaeyla growled.

She extended her arms, and in each hand, a sword made from her own magic manifested. They were both almost as long as she was tall, but thin like rapiers or estocs. As she summoned these blades of red light, her wings stretched out. She tensed the muscles in her back, and they beat down the air behind her, launching her forward.

Beelzebub, despite being hit with such a devastating blow, seemed no more than shaken. He rose to his feet and darted out of the way of a hectic swing from Mikhaeyla’s swords. A huge chunk of the forest was blown away in their wake, rays of red aura eviscerating the ground wherever they danced.

Wow... No wonder she didn’t want to fight around the towns...

Link couldn’t help but gawk as he watched the fight unfold. Mikhaeyla turned on her heel and was after her enemy again in an instant. Beelzebub grunted in frustration. There was no time for him to escape while being hunted down so persistently. As if to laugh at gravity, he began to freely float into the air, moving as he pleased. The drill spell he used against Link and Tetra wrapped around his arms once more. Mikhaeyla used her wings to follow him into the sky.

When his drills clashed against Mikhaeyla’s swords, an intense burst of magic scattered through the area. Wherever these rays of energy fell, they cut into the earth and kicked up clouds of dust. Link moved Tetra, who was still limping, to the shelter of one of the tree stump houses. His eyes were still fixed on Mikhaeyla, trying to keep track of her movements. She was almost too fast for him to see. He felt inspired by her skill with those swords, her form equally deadly as it was graceful.

Over and over again, Mikhaeyla swung her blades at her prey. Her arms seemed to blur from the rapid motion. Beelzebub had no breathing room. When he attempted to counter and strike back, she would slip behind him in an instant. He was outmatched by her speed and the amazing frequency of her attacks. Before long, he was being grazed left and right. He was looking more cornered by the second.

“Enough! I will not fall to an ignoble blood traitor like you!” Beelzebub roared.

He loosed a wave of pressure of his own, a violet haze covering his skin like a membrane. The force of it pushed Mikhaeyla back a bit, and in that opening, he slammed his two drill-covered arms together. He was trying to use that giant burst of power he lobbed at Link once again. In response, Mikhaeyla brought her own swords together in the same way. The two blades mixed together, forming one giant greatsword made of red aura. She brandished it behind herself, readying it for a full swing.

“Whoa, she’s gonna cut through that thing?!” Tetra exclaimed.

The air was becoming overwhelmingly thick with magic. Link felt his ears pop along with the pains of a headache. He held up his shield once more, understanding that this next clash would be catastrophic. Just as Beelzebub was set to fire that chaotic mass of swirling energy, his eyes turned to target Link and Tetra. Link’s skin felt like needles were piercing their way up through it. He knew what was about to happen next.

As he feared, Beelzebub spun on his hip and shot that enormous drill spell right at him. Mikhaeyla didn’t fail to notice his pivot and rushed to intercept. She wasn’t about to leave her allies to such a fate. And this was a fact that Beelzebub exploited. The second he fired it, he raised an arm up and created a magic portal behind himself.

“Ha! Predictable! Farewell, you pitiful fools! Enjoy your last moments of freedom while you can!”

With those last prideful remarks, Beelzebub floated backwards into the vortex, and was gone from sight. He escaped, much to Mikhaeyla’s chagrin. But she still had one last job to do here.

The drill continued to hurtle at Link and Tetra. Faster than they could react, Mikhaeyla appeared between them and their doom, still poised to strike. With a deep grunt, she swung her greatsword with frightening force. Her blade met the drill dead-on, and split it completely in two. The halves rapidly disintegrated, but not without a savage burst of wind in all directions.

A wave of energy created from the motion of Mikhaeyla’s swing continued to rip through the sky, carving off the tops of trees in the distance. The tree stump house Link and Tetra hid in was torn asunder and uprooted, splinters of bark and wood pulp filling the air around them. Trenches were dug in a half circle around either side of where it had stood, marking the blast radius that Mikhaeyla had shielded them from.

When all was finally settled, Link and Tetra released long-held breaths of relief and collapsed to their knees. They considered themselves lucky to have survived the effects of a Demon King’s rampage. What they witnessed was beyond their imagination. It also served as a lesson; Beelzebub was strong enough to trade blows with her. That was the sort of enemy they now faced. The fight was over for now, but their work was far from done.

Mikhaeyla relaxed her shoulders, letting the tension leave her. The rage she was emitting finally subsided, and she gently floated to the ground. When her feet touched down, she shed herself of her transformation in a brilliant display of red light. She was back to the kind Mikhaeyla they’d come to know.

She turned to face the pair, arms crossed at her chest and eyes downcast. “I am glad you’re safe. I must apologize for endangering you like that...”

“H-hey... We should be thanking you, you know? You really saved our hides.” Tetra said bashfully.

“What happened to Zoie?” Link asked.

“I chose to leave his defeat in the hands of two Lokomo so I could come here. I suppose we will have to find out how they fared later...” she explained.

“Man, I’m still in awe. I can’t believe how strong you are! I guess your title really ain’t for show, huh?” Tetra said.

Mikhaeyla’s lips pursed disappointedly. “Would that it mattered. I let Beelzebub escape, and I’ve devastated this forest. I truly can’t apologize enough.”

“Don’t let that get you down! I mean, yeah, that sucks, but at least now we know who he is and what he’s doing! That’s a lot more than we knew before! Now we just gotta stop him! Right, Link?” Tetra encouraged.

Link nodded eagerly, his sparkling eyes assuring Mikhaeyla that all was well. She finally let go of her shame and smiled warmly.

“Thank you, both of you. I really am grateful that you chose to stay here in Hyleigh. We could not have made such progress without you. I fully believe that.” she said. “It is as you say. Now that we know what he’s up to, we can formulate a plan to stop him.”

“Yeah!” Link cheered, pumping his fist in the air.

“Jeez, you’ve still got too much energy... I need a long nap after today.” Tetra complained. “I guess we better go find Sitri and tell her what’s going on. That’ll be a joy, I’m sure...”

Mikhaeyla’s expression hardened. “I notice she isn’t here with you. Is she still at Whittleton?”

“Yeah, we kinda had to leave that mess to her. I’m sure she’s fine, though. No one who’s got the guts to give me so much attitude is gonna die that easily.” Tetra said.

Her words betrayed her façade. Link was glad to see that even she was worried for the girl, just as he was. He couldn’t help himself from looking in the direction of Whittleton. Sitri was descended from the Hero of Spirits who saved the land from Demon King Malladus. And they’d just learned that a wicked demon was trying to undo the seal that her ancestor created. How was she going to take that news?

Whatever her reaction, Link had made up his mind that he was going to be there for her, and for Hyleigh. He never turned his back on those in need before, and this was no different. It didn’t matter what the threat was or what its scale was like. He wasn’t going to walk away from this. He couldn’t. And he knew that Tetra and her crew would have his back, along with the new friends he’d made here. He clenched his fists, feeling more motivated than ever before.

Link was determined to put things to rights and save Hyleigh.

Azure Sage

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Staff member
ZD Legend
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Chapter 20 is here! I really flew through this one because I was so excited to finally be at this part of the story, lol. And now the story is officially half over! It's been a lot of fun so far. I can't wait to keep going. For now, though, enjoy the conclusion to the Second Movement!

Chapter Twenty
Unraveling The Web​

Tetra groaned after following Mikhaeyla and Link through a magic portal. It was the fastest way to return to Whittleton, but it was a new and uncomfortable experience for her. She shook her arms and wiggled her hands around, stomping in place for a bit. She was already sore after her fight with Beelzebub, even with Mikhaeyla’s healing magic, and this really did not help.

“I feel so funky... Like I just got dragged through a crack in a wall.” Tetra complained.

“Heh. Everyone says that about the experience. It’s a natural consequence of traveling through space. If we’d been crossing dimensional borders, it would’ve been worse. You get used to it eventually.” Mikhaeyla informed her.

Link, predictably, looked excited about the sensation. She had no idea how he always managed to approach new things with such a sense of wonder, even the unpleasant stuff. That was something about him she found just as endearing as it was exasperating. Still, it was time to move on from this. There were more concerning matters at hand.

The three of them were now standing at the entrance to Whittleton. The fires were dying down, but corpses still littered the area like leaves fallen from trees. It was even more gruesome a sight now than when they’d left, with all the fresh monster bodies lying about in chunks. Sitri’s handiwork, undoubtedly.

Wordlessly, they trudged through the wreckage, eyes peeled for survivors, and for Sitri. The further in they went, the more the severity of the destruction was impressed upon them. They could not find a single building left standing. Even the trees dotting the village were charred beyond salvation. The earth was unrecognizably scorched.

“I... don’t have the words...” Mikhaeyla said quietly.

No kidding... How many people lived here? How many of them died? This is rough...

Tetra couldn’t bring herself to vocalize her thoughts. It was a rare thing for her to feel so moved. She knew that monster raids were frequent, but this was on a completely different scale than what she’d seen or even heard about. It had to have been Beelzebub. He set the monsters on this town fiercer than he ever had before because he was frustrated by her crew’s meddling.

Thinking about it like that, there was no way she could back out of this now. She knew Link would never walk away from something like this anyway, but for the first time, she was already on the same page with his chivalry. This was the sort of trouble she’d usually want to avoid, but not now. It had to stop. This couldn’t be allowed to happen again, she thought. No one deserved a fate like this.

“Hey! There she is!” Link exclaimed, breaking the silence.

Both Tetra and Mikhaeyla whipped around to see where he was pointing. There was Sitri, at the back of the village. A lump got stuck in Tetra’s throat when she saw her. The girl was on her hands and knees, sitting atop a mountain of miniblin corpses. There were even several big blins surrounding her, too. There were too many for Tetra to count offhand. It was a grisly sight.

Sitri herself looked like a mess. Her hair was frayed and tousled and her clothes were soaked with blood. Her skin looked grimy from the fire’s ashes and the viscera that caked up from all her fighting. She sat there sobbing to herself, her tears spilling down enough to wash away some of the blood at her feet. It was hard to look at.

Jeez... I never liked the girl, but... She’s really had a time of it, huh.

Tetra felt a bit guilty over her harsh attitude toward her. This was no time for their past problems to come up. That was the last thing Sitri needed right now. Just this once, she decided to keep any comments she might’ve had about her to herself.

“Sitri! Are you hurt?” Mikhaeyla called out.

The girl shivered and raised her head. When she looked over at her aunt, they could see that her eyes were red and puffy. Her tears had stained her cheeks as much as the blood had. Her lips quivered, trying to form words. It looked physically painful for her to speak. When she finally did, her voice cracked apart.

“Aunt Mikha... They’re all dead... Every single one of them... I couldn’t save... a single person...”

The news was disheartening, to say the least. Tetra found herself unable to move, biting her lip in lament. The entire village’s population was wiped out. The reality of such a horrific tragedy was going to take a while to sink in, but for the moment, all she could do was stand there in dismay. Next to her, she could hear Link start to cry, as well. He was surely taking it harder than she was. He felt everything intensely, resonating with others’ emotions like they were his own.

“Sitri... I’m sorry. You did your best. Please don’t hurt yourself over this...” Mikhaeyla tried to soothe her.

“I’m sorry... I’m so sorry... I’m sorry I couldn’t save them...” Sitri continued to cry.

Her aunt walked over to her and helped her stand up. As soon as she was in her embrace, the floodgates opened and Sitri wailed into her chest. Tetra watched the way she clutched the back of Mikhaeyla’s shirt and felt her heart ache at the sight of it.

No wonder she didn’t like us... I’m sure with the way we carried ourselves when we met, it looked like we weren’t taking this seriously. But this is serious. For her, and for us. I’d better shape up...

“Come on, let’s sit outside the village. We should give the dead a little peace. And we have much to discuss.” Mikhaeyla said, stroking her niece’s hair.

Sitri mumbled some sound of understanding, but her voice was muffled from the way her face was pressed into Mikhaeyla, so it was hard to tell what it was for sure. But she did nod her head, albeit shakily. Together, they walked out of Whittleton, letting the fires run their course. The question of what to do about the dead, and the village as a whole, would have to come later.

The night air outside the village limits was frigid. The sound of crackling flames and monster laughter had vanished, replaced by rustling leaves and chirping insects. In the forest ahead of them, fireflies bloomed with light between the trees, providing a sense of calm for the weary group.

They all sat next to the Spirit Tracks. They could see Boyle’s train still parked ahead of them, waiting patiently. They decided not to approach yet. They didn’t want the man to overhear the coming conversation. Information control was going to be vital in keeping the masses of Hyleigh in order after such a storm of events.

When Sitri finally pulled herself away from her aunt, she seemed to have regained some of her composure. There was a stream nearby in the woods, and they waited for her to clean herself up a bit before they began. When she returned, it was hard to tell how much of the water on her face was from the river, and how much of it was from her tears.

At last, it was time to speak. “So? What were you two doing? I remember you said you were going to investigate something...” Sitri said meekly.

Her eyes looked to have lost much of their luster. Tetra still found it difficult to talk to her. Mikhaeyla seemed to hesitate, knowing that the news may only upset her further. But nonetheless, it had to be relayed.

“Link and Tetra were able to track down the mastermind, proving my theory was true. His name is Beelzebub, and he was once a Demon Lord. He was thought to have gone missing years ago, but it turns out he’s been hiding here in Hyleigh all this time, using his magic to instigate the monster raids. And he told us that his ultimate goal is to break the seal on Malladus.” Mikhaeyla explained.

Sitri’s eyes widened. Her mouth hung open, before clasping shut in an intense scowl. Her shoulders quaked with anger and confusion. Her fists clenched tightly as they rested on her knees. If she wasn’t inconsolable before, she was well on her way to getting there.

“What...? Why would... How... Th-that's just...! I...” she stuttered.

“Believe me, I understand your feelings. I am just as disgusted and enraged as you.” Mikhaeyla said. “We cannot let him have his way. He has to be stopped. I know you want that, too, so please, hold it in for now. You can unleash it all on him when we find him.”

“But...! Why would anyone want to do that?!” Sitri cried. “All those people died... Over so many years... All for this? We can’t... We have to do something! I won’t let him ruin what Alphonse worked so hard to do!”

“I know, my dear. My family was right there with him. This is just as personal for me. But if we are going to stop him, we need to understand what he’s doing. Why the raids? Surely there must be a reason if he’s kept at it for so long.” Mikhaeyla said.

“When we found him, he was talking to himself about how Whittleton was a success. Also, we saw the Spirit Tracks flicker for a bit, like they were gonna disappear. It’s gotta be connected.” Tetra said.

“What?! But how could they? Why would attacking a village cause the Spirit Tracks t-to vanish?” Sitri said.

“That’s a good question. I can’t even conceive of how such a thing would work, but perhaps the Lokomo would know more...” Mikhaeyla said. “I think it’s safe to assume, then, that the raids are his way of feeling out weaknesses in the Spirit Tracks, even if we don’t understand the how of it.”

“I still don’t get why he’d want to do all of this. I mean, I know we’re not from around here, but what he was saying didn’t make a lick of sense to me. What’s his beef with humans?” Tetra asked.

Mikhaeyla frowned. “I’m afraid that’s a history that runs deep in the Mystic Realm. Hatred of humans used to be widespread all throughout demonkind. The discrimination ran both ways, back in those days. The two peoples’ disdain for each other is actually what birthed the Mystic Realm in the first place, as a cross-dimensional haven for demons to escape the persecution of humans.”

“Aunt Mikha’s family tried really hard to change those attitudes. Alphonse helped them a lot with that, too. It didn’t work out completely... But I heard it’s a lot better now than it used to be.” Sitri added.

“Indeed it is. But there must still be some pockets of pureblood demons holding onto that resentment, unwilling to let go of the past. Changing hearts is difficult work, and people often pass their beliefs down to their children. One way or another, it persists... And it has wormed its way into a powerful foe who’s capable of acting on it.” Mikhaeyla continued.

“Well that’s just great. And that wacko wants to unseal Malladus just to satisfy his hatred? He’s not even original. What a total poser.” Tetra grumbled.

“You said it...” Sitri said, looking like a little life came back to her eyes.

“Not to mention misinformed. Wiping out the humans was never one of Malladus’s goals.” Mikhaeyla explained. “His aim was to put on a show for the Gods that created the world and cause as much chaos as he could. Beelzebub has likely conflated that with his own prejudices, holding the tales of Malladus on a pedestal of his own making.”

“Jeez, he’s even projecting onto the guy. Could he get any lamer?” Tetra spat.

Sitri snorted a bit. Her mood seemed to be improving from Tetra’s snide remarks. That wasn’t her goal, but the surly captain was still a little glad to see it. Not that she’d ever admit that.

“Even so, the threat he poses is real. If Malladus is unsealed, he will surely unleash two thousand years’ worth of rage and contempt upon the world. We cannot allow such a thing to pass.” Mikhaeyla said gravely.

“What do you need us to do?” Link asked.

“My crew and I will help however we can. We aren’t gonna stand idly by.” Tetra assured her.

Sitri looked at both of them, seeming somewhat surprised. If she had something on her mind, she didn’t say it out loud, but she did avert her eyes from them after a few moments.

Mikhaeyla smiled at them. “I already have an idea of sorts... But first, we should return to Hyleigh City. I want to bring you all before the Council and explain to them everything we just discussed.”

“Whoa, we’re finally gonna meet those blowhards, huh? Guess it’s about time...” Tetra said.

“Whatever it takes!” Link said earnestly.

“Then we shall leave immediately. They won’t be in session this late at night, so we’ll take the train and wait until dawn. Come.” Mikhaeyla said.

The group stood up and started heading toward Boyle’s train. They were surely gonna have to tell him about Whittleton, at least, but the stuff about Beelzebub was a different story that he didn’t need to know about yet. As they walked, Tetra felt Sitri’s eyes on her, but when she glanced back, the girl had turned away again.

* * *

It was close to four in the morning when Tetra and Link got their first view of Hyleigh City. Having spent their whole lives moving from island to island, they had never seen a town so vast. The giant walls enclosing everything looked more intimidating that the tall buildings of stone that made up the heart of Great Bay. Even with just the small trickle of sunlight breaching the horizon, they could tell it was impressive.

Boyle pulled his train into the city’s large station, and the pair of outlanders instantly felt out of place. Cobblestone roads spread out in many directions, with one main street in the center. The buildings lining them looked labyrinthine in arrangement. The sheer number of them was daunting. Tetra figured she’d get lost right away if she weren’t following someone. She had a hard time imagining what this place must look like during the day with all the people about.

This is making my head spin. I guess when you live on a continent, you’ve got the room to make cities this big. Wherever we get to make our own kingdom, I hope it’ll be something like this.

The first thing the group did was visit the home of a man called Rasta. He was Mikhaeyla’s aide and a member of the Council. Apparently, he’d been keeping tabs on her crew’s activities, so he already knew a fair bit about them. Tetra found that annoying, but chose not to say anything at the moment. Sitri seemed well-acquainted with him and his wife, which helped soften the disturbance of being woken up so early.

Under Mikhaeyla’s orders, Rasta hurriedly drafted an emergency summons for the Council and sent letters to each of the other members’ homes. They were to convene at half past six. The group took a quick break to eat and rest during the downtime. It was badly needed.

At six sharp, Tetra found herself sitting against the wall between Link and Sitri in the Council’s meeting room. Her arms were crossed at her chest, her foot tapping the floor impatiently. It didn’t help that Sitri kept stealing glances at the both of them. She was beginning to get aggravated.

I wish she would just come out and say what’s on her mind already. I swear, if I have to be the one to break the ice...

Link, on the other hand, kept looking around the room in childlike amazement. He probably hadn’t even noticed that Sitri was looking at him. Everything new was interesting to him, even if it was some stuffy chamber for boring politics. Tetra found herself wishing for at least some of that innocence, just for long enough to stave off the monotony.

Finally, the time came. Mikhaeyla entered the room first, followed by Rasta. She took a seat next to Sitri while Rasta sat at one of the lavish-looking chairs at the round table in the center of the room. Then, one by one, the rest filed in. Once everyone was seated, Mikhaeyla stood up and began the meeting.

“Greetings, everyone. Thank you for convening on such short notice, especially so early in the morning. I have grave news of the utmost importance. But before I begin, I’d like to introduce you to a few people who were instrumental in the matters I wish to discuss.” she reported.

She beckoned for the three to stand, so they did. Sitri looked like a bundle of nerves, hands wrung up at her sides, stiff as a board. In contrast, Link looked relaxed, with a pleasant smile on his face. Tetra still kept her arms crossed with a dour expression. She scrutinized each of the members, finding some more interesting than others.

“From left to right, we have Sitri Beldine, descendant of the Hero of Spirits and a consistent relief worker all across the country. She is also my niece.” Mikhaeyla began. “Next we have Tetra, captain of the pirate crew that’s been aiding the Ocean Realm’s cities since their arrival a few weeks ago. And next to her is Link, her treasured ally and a brilliant swordsman.”

Link nodded excitedly, while Sitri gulped nervously. Tetra found it a little amusing how in-sync their opposite demeanors were.

“And to you three, may I introduce Hyleigh's Council.” Mikhaeyla continued. “There is Lady Llewellyn of the Forest Realm, Sir Mabufu of the Snow Realm, Sir Anderson of the Ocean Realm, Sir Darius of the Fire Realm, and Sir Rasta of the Mystic Realm.”

“Hey, you’re an Anouki!” Link said to Mabufu. He was speaking out of turn, not that he seemed to realize it. “We saw an island full of you guys in the Realm of the Ocean King!”

Mabufu, who at first looked bothered by his breach of etiquette, flinched at that news. “What?! I didn’t realize we Anouki lived anywhere but here! That’s a surprise!”

“We saw Gorons like you over there, too.” Tetra said to Darius. She did know that she was speaking out of turn, but she didn’t care.

“Is that so? I wonder if we could get in contact with them somehow... Hearing that there’s more of my brothers out in the world somewhere is...” Darius started.

Rasta cleared his throat. “While this is fascinating, we should move on to the topic at hand. Lady Mikhaeyla, what is the purpose of this emergency summons?”

Wow, that guy’s all business, huh?

“You may have heard about the raid on Whittleton that started yesterday.” Mikhaeyla said. “It is with much grief that I am to inform you that the entire village was wiped out. There were no survivors.”

Everyone gasped in shock, but Llewellyn did so most intensely of all. “No... Wiped out? Not Whittleton...” she anguished, covering her mouth in horror.

“For an entire village to be completely destroyed overnight, that’s never happened before... Not since the days of the Great War.” Rasta said.

“Yes, the scale of the attack was unlike any we’ve seen. But even something so horrible has a silver lining. Finally, at long last, we have uncovered the cause of the raids.” Mikhaeyla announced.

The entire Council gasped yet again. “For true? Speak! What is it?!” Anderson exclaimed.

“The raids were masterminded by an evil demon named Beelzebub. He was discovered by Link and Tetra here, who fought against him valiantly before he escaped. If not for their efforts, his identity would still remain a mystery.” she told them.

“A demon? Not another rogue like the Laughing Reaper! How are we supposed to deal with two of those monsters running amok?” Darius complained.

Rasta shot him a dirty look. Mikhaeyla furrowed her brow, as well. They probably didn’t appreciate his choice of words, Tetra thought. Even Sitri looked offended on their behalf.

“Unfortunately, it gets worse. He revealed to us that his reason for orchestrating the raids is to break the Spirit Tracks and unseal Malladus. He wishes to once more plunge Hyleigh into a sea of flames.” Mikhaeyla informed them.

The third united gasp of the morning echoed from each of them. “Ya gotta be kidding me! That’s the worst possible scenario I can think of!” Mabufu shouted.

“If that were to happen, it would be the end of Hyleigh for good!” Anderson added angrily.

“What are we going to do about this? How can we stop such treachery?” Llewellyn said.

“We cannot allow the sparks of another Great War to flourish. Do you have a plan to counter him, Your Majesty?” Rasta asked.

“I do. We know that he’s seeking to achieve this goal by instigating monster raids. Hyleigh doesn’t have a standing military, so your defense against them has been poor, to say the least. That is why I am going to form my own order of knights from volunteers in St. Versailles.” Mikhaeyla revealed.

“You’re gonna what?!” Mabufu cried out.

“I don’t know if I like the idea of a bunch of demons marching around our country.” Darius said.

“Neither will Beelzebub. He considers us demons that aid you to be traitors, so if we create an order of knights made up of demons, it will serve as a symbol that the Mystic Realm does not stand with his beliefs. For us, and for him.” Mikhaeyla explained.

“You and your family have always supported our cause. I’m more than happy to vote in favor of it.” Llewellyn said.

“Honestly, at this point I’m desperate for anybody to help us. You’ve got my vote, too.” Anderson said. “But how quickly can you put together such a force?”

“Demon Lord Hawthorne already serves as captain of the guard for St. Versailles. I intend to reorganize some of them into this new order, with him at the helm. They will all be personally led by me. With volunteers from the guard and from the people of my city, we will be well-equipped to step in and defend Hyleigh's many towns from future raids.” she assured him.

“I can vouch for Hawthorne’s character. He’s rather brusque, but he is a dedicated and loyal individual. I will also vote in favor.” Rasta said.

“That’s three people, so we have the majority. Can you accept this, Sirs Mabufu and Darius?” Llewellyn said.

They both looked unhappy, but they gave in. “If that’s what must be done...” Mabufu said, sighing.

“I am concerned, though. It sounds like you’re just going to focus on the raids. What about Beelzebub? What is your plan to deal with the man himself?” Darius inquired.

“A fair question. I will presently return to the Mystic Realm to set up my new order of knights, and when I do, I will investigate him. You see, Beelzebub used to be a Demon Lord in service to a certain Demon King. One who is no longer among the living. I will travel to their former territory and see what I can unearth.”

“Very well. I suppose we’ll need more information if we are to formulate a more specific strategy...” Rasta said.

“And what about you lot?” Mabufu said, directing his attention to the three guests. “You guys fought with Beelzebub and the Laughing Reaper, and you’ve even been helping fight off the raids. Are you gonna continue doing that? How would you like to lead a private force for us here on the Council?”

Tetra grimaced. Mikhaeyla was right, they really are trying to tie us down. Then she recalled her deal with the Demon King.

“Actually, we already promised Mikhaeyla we’d help her out.” Tetra told him.

Link and Sitri both nodded. Mabufu reluctantly backed down, which brought out a smirk from Tetra. It seemed he wasn’t willing to cross Mikhaeyla like that. He and Darius both looked uncomfortable with her presence, and so did Anderson, even though he voted in favor of her plan. Perhaps they were scared of her Demon King title.

Boy, am I glad we took that deal. Though I do have to wonder how much we're playing into her hands...

The discussion reached a pause, and after a few moments, Mikhaeyla spoke up again. “I propose a short recess, then. I shall return to St. Versailles immediately. I trust you all to handle the logistics and prepare to welcome my knights to Hyleigh. Whittleton's dead must also be properly put to rest. Before I leave... Sitri, Link, Tetra, may I have a word?”

The three of them nodded and followed her out into the hall. Tetra stole a quick look back over her shoulder, and caught many uncertain stares from the Council members before the doors shut behind her. They didn’t look wholly satisfied, but with a situation like this, that was to be expected. It certainly wasn’t gonna stop her from doing what she wanted, though.

“Aunt Mikha, are you really leaving now?” Sitri asked sadly.

“Yes, my dear. I’m sorry to part from you so soon once again, but I need you here. Can I ask you all to keep an ear out for Zoie? We still must learn what transpired after I left Great Bay.” Mikhaeyla said.

“Yeah, we need to get in touch with my boys, too, let ‘em know we’re still alive.” Tetra said.

“Please do. I’m counting on each of you to aid me. As a matter of fact, how would you all like to be honorary members of my Grand Demonic Knights?” Mikhaeyla asked.

“Hah, nice try. I’ll work with you, but I ain’t gonna be your peon.” Tetra said wryly.

“You already picked a name?” Link asked.

“Of course. I’ve had the groundwork laid out for many years now. All I needed was the right circumstances to push it through.” Mikhaeyla winked.

“Jeez, you’re quite the schemer. I like your style! Just keep your mitts off me and the boys.” Tetra said.

“I’d be happy to join! I-if that’s okay!” Sitri said eagerly.

Mikhaeyla smiled warmly and drew her niece into a hug. “Sitri, my dear, I told you there will always be a place for you with me. I haven’t had the time to dote on you as much as I would’ve liked, but don’t forget, I’m proud of you. Just please keep yourself safe.”

“I’m sorry... I know I’ve made you worry a lot lately. I promise I’ll do better. I’ll be a real hero, just like Alphonse, you’ll see!” Sitri assured her.

Mikhaeyla’s lips quivered when she heard that, but she nodded. She backed away from the group, and looked at each of them in turn. She smiled approvingly and created a portal behind herself.

“Things are coming to a head now. Hyleigh needs your valor more than ever. I place great faith in each of you. I shall see you again soon.”

With those words of farewell, Mikhaeyla turned and stepped into her vortex of magic, though she took one last worried look at Sitri before she did. After the red aura swirled away into particles of light, the hall was quiet. Tetra couldn’t even hear any muffled voices from inside the meeting room, if there were any.

This quiet was broken when Sitri took a deep breath. At last, she turned to Tetra, facing her directly.

“Listen. I’ve got something I need to say to you. Something long overdue...” she started.

Oh, great. Is she seriously gonna give us more grief?

Assuming as much, Tetra crossed her arms again and glared at her, sticking out her lower lip in defiance. Link looked concerningly between the two girls, like he was getting ready to jump between them if need be. Fortunately for him, and to Tetra’s great surprise, nothing of that sort happened. Just the opposite.

“... I’m sorry.” Sitri said, struggling to keep looking Tetra in the eye.

“... Huh? Come again?!” Tetra said, not able to believe what she just heard.

“I'm sorry for the way I treated you. You guys really were just trying to help, and I made assumptions and even attacked you... I was a pretty poor excuse for a hero.” Sitri said glumly.

“Y-yeah, I'll say...” Tetra said, her jaw still hanging loose.

“I'm ashamed of myself for this, but I was jealous of you guys. Everything was going so well for you, and not for me, and I wanted to be the one everyone relied on... I wanted to be a hero... But you know what? Alphonse didn't beat Malladus alone. I don't have to be the only one helping.” Sitri said. “You guys... You still want to stay and help, even after everything that happened. I didn't expect that of you. I... I thought you would just abandon Hyleigh when things got rough. But you're still here. That means a lot to me. You have Aunt Mikha’s trust, too, so... Um... Do you think we can work together?”

Tetra stared at her in amazement. How was she supposed to respond to such an honest and heartfelt show of remorse? She was completely unprepared for this. She had to wonder if what she went through in Whittleton changed her. The girl's eyes looked different now than they used to. Darker, but still hopeful.

Link, of course, didn't hesitate to nod his head. He was so excited he was bouncing on his heels, with the biggest grin on his face she'd seen in a while. Figures he'd be happy about that, she thought. But as for herself...

I don’t like her. Not at all. She’s been nothing but a pain in my ass since we met. But still...

“I, uh... I’m sorry, too.” Tetra said, to Link’s enormous shock. “I know I gave you a hard time, and all, but I’ve been seeing how hard you’re trying. I, uh... Argh, I’m so bad at this mushy stuff! I don’t know how to say it right!” she groaned, scratching the back of her head.

“Yay! We’re finally friends!” Link said excitedly.

“Hey! That is NOT what I said! Shut up!” Tetra yelled at him.

Sitri giggled, finally smiling a real smile for the first time all day. “Eheheh... Yeah, I think I’d like that, after all we’ve been through... Um... But what about your goal? Weren’t you trying to build a kingdom of your own?” she asked.

“Ah, yeah... About that...” Tetra said, Briefly, she remembered Tarno’s fortune, but she shrugged it off. “I still haven’t decided what we’re gonna do about it. But right now, helping out here is more important to us. We’ll get back to that someday, but don’t worry, we don’t wanna build our kingdom here.”

Sitri looked relieved to hear that. “Okay, that’s good...” Then she looked side to side, and leaned in a bit. “To be honest with you guys, I have a goal of my own... I haven’t even told Aunt Mikha yet because I don’t want to worry her... I, um... I want to be the next Hero of Spirits.” she whispered. “I want to work hard and save as many people as I can, and I want to defeat Beelzebub and protect Alphonse’s legacy. Can I... Can I ask for your support?”

“Of course! We want to help save Hyleigh, too, you know!” Link said.

Sitri’s entire face lit up. “Really? You’ll help me?! That’s so great! It’s a promise, then!”

They both looked at Tetra expectantly. Dealing with Link’s altruistic nonsense was bad enough, but now she had two of them ganging up on her. The pressure was on, and her face contorted into a cringe. After squirming in place for a bit, she finally sighed.

“Ugh, fine. You have our word, okay?”

“Yes!” they said together.

Tetra hung her head in resignation. There was no winning this for her, but then again, she wasn’t against it to begin with. She just didn’t know how to express it properly. Kind words were never really a pirate’s strong suit. It was gonna take time for her to get used to not being at odds with everyone around her.

Even still, this was what she wanted. When she made the call to stay in Papuchiya, even in spite of the fortune she’d heard, it was because she wanted more of this. She liked the feeling of helping people. She wanted to seek something new. And now she could finally see how that was taking shape.

I still don’t get how this would even lead us to our goal... Dumb fortune... But even so, I’m in this for the long haul. Even if it means I’ve gotta work with Sitri.

Link was in a bubbly mood now. He was happier than either of the girls about their reconciliation, and to show it, he put his hand out between them. It was obvious what he wanted to do. Tetra cringed again, thinking he couldn’t get any cornier. But Sitri looked pleased to see it, and placed her hand on top of his.

They were looking at her with those expectant eyes again. Tetra felt mortified about the idea of going along with this, but eventually, under the weight of their gazes, her shoulders dropped down in defeat. She, too, extended her hand and placed it on top of Sitri’s.

“We’re in this together, then!” Sitri said.

“Yeah!” Link cheered.

“Yeah, whatever.” Tetra said.

Together, they threw their hands into the air. It was a simple act, but it made the whole thing feel more real for them. Tetra and her crew had gotten involved with a lot of crazy since they pulled ashore in Hyleigh, and it was only getting worse. But at the very least, she could take pride in knowing that she was following her heart.

The seeds of our future, huh? We’ll see...

Second Movement: The Bolero of Souls

Azure Sage

Join your hands...
Staff member
ZD Legend
Comm. Coordinator
Time for Chapter 21! This kicks off the Third Movement, and we get to see a couple new characters. More and more, the truth is starting to be revealed... Buckle up!

Chapter Twenty-One
What Rises From Ash​

Demon King Mikhaeyla reclined in her study in the early hours of the morning, enjoying a freshly-brewed pot of tea. The previous day, she had returned from her labors in Hyleigh with a fierce determination in her heart. With the aid of her new allies, she was able to unmask the monster mastermind, Beelzebub, and she received the Council’s approval to construct her Order of Grand Demonic Knights. This was the best progress she’d made in years, and she wanted to enjoy a short respite before getting back to the grind.

The tea she was savoring was brewed from topaz dahlias, a type of flower that was native to St. Versailles. In fact, her family’s castle was constructed with much topaz color because the original Demon King in her line loved them so dearly. The flowers were beautiful and fragrant, and the tea tasted as though sunlight had been captured in a pot. Delightfully mellow and dewy, with properties that relaxed the brain. Ever since she was a child, it was her favorite tea. It helped her focus on whatever tasks were to hand. Today was no exception.

The moment she’d returned to the Mystic Realm yesterday, she met with Hawthorne and apprised him of the situation. Once he heard that a former fellow Demon Lord was the culprit, he became more motivated than ever to help. The man was like a wall of muscle, standing at six and a half feet tall. His wavy teal hair and eyes often belied his stout personality. When those eyes started glaring, even the toughest of the guards felt like running home to cry. It was this stalwart and loyal fellow she’d entrusted with gathering volunteers to form her knights. She’d left the method of recruitment to his discretion while she poured over documents pertaining to Beelzebub.

The villainous Demon Lord was thought to have gone missing over forty years ago. Flipping through what records she could find in her own archives, her memory of the incident was confirmed. He had vanished suddenly, without a trace. And left in his wake was the smoldering remains of his liege’s manor, everyone in it charred and dead. The popular opinion was that he was the culprit behind this grievous act, but there was not enough evidence to say conclusively if he actually was responsible. His body was not discovered in the manor, so he was reported missing.

That was all she could find on the case. Thanks to Link and Tetra, she now knew that Beelzebub was in fact still alive, and he’d been hiding in Hyleigh ever since this incident. The time frames lined up perfectly. It happened over forty years ago, and the monster raids in Hyleigh were gradually increasing in frequency and intensity over the past few decades. The connection appeared obvious to her. The question of his guilt in the incident of his liege’s death was still up in the air, but it was clear now that he began his dastardly work not long after it transpired.

And there was one other important point to note. His liege was someone in particular that she’d just learned something new about that very same day. This other connection swirled around in her head, slowly untangling the messy mystery. The pieces were starting to fit, but she didn’t have all the answers yet. Something was off. Something was still missing.

It doesn’t add up. At least not fully. I suppose I’ll have to go and see for myself.

Reaffirming herself of such, Mikhaeyla finished her tea and stood up. Rather than her typical royal robes and braided sandals, she donned a much more knightly attire. Fitting for the path ahead of her, she thought. Her family’s traditional military wear was a black uniform with red trim. She had modified this fit to match her standing, adding a topaz chest plate to the front, gauntlets in place of gloves, armor plating on the boots, and a half cape to the back. The cape was also black with red lining, but it had two points that ended in topaz tassels. The design on the back of the cape was a topaz dahlia, but on her front chest plate, a red spider lily was engraved. This was her own personal standard, and it appeared on her magic transformation garb, as well.

The dahlia stood for elegance and inner strength, her family’s original creed. The spider lily represented transformation and rebirth, to symbolize her drive to change the Mystic Realm’s attitudes of resentment toward humans. It also served as a portent of death to all those who would oppose such peace. She could not think of a more fitting dress in which to stand against Beelzebub. This sentiment would carry through as the driving force behind the Grand Demonic Knights, as well.

With these thoughts pushing her forward, Mikhaeyla embarked to check on Hawthorne’s progress. He’d had an entire day now to seek out recruits from the guards and the town. She didn’t expect a full army so soon, but she was hopeful for a couple of good hands. Her boots clanked down the halls of her castle, creating a small echo. In time, this echo was drowned out by cheers as she reached the rear courtyard, where the guards trained their bodies.

Out in this crisp morning air were several rows of prospective volunteers, many from the guards, but a handful in plain clothes. She didn’t expect to see so many of St. Versailles’ citizens. The sight of them each putting themselves on the line for her mission made her heart feel heavy, yet warm. Looking around, she spotted Hawthorne standing in the center of the yard, his arms crossed at his chest. Standing opposite him was a young man dressed in the guard’s uniform.

“Come on! You can do better than that!” Hawthorne shouted at him.

The lad steeled himself and charged forward, letting out a cry for victory. He ran with his arms poised to shove Hawthorne, violet aura swirling around him. When he reached the Demon Lord, she shoved with all of his might. He shoved and shoved, but the wall of a man did not budge.

“Weak! Pitiful! You expect to serve Her Majesty’s cause with these flimsy excuses for muscles?” Hawthorne goaded.

He flicked one of his arms out, and the poor boy was sent flying to the back of the yard. A chorus of laughter and boos filled the air after that. It was oddly festive. Mikhaeyla couldn't hold in a sigh as she beheld it.

“Oh, dear. I know I said I’d leave it to his discretion, but this may be a bit much.” she said sheepishly.

“Your Majesty. Allow me to explain.”

Mikhaeyla turned and was greeted by a pair of guards she knew well. They were each at the top, Hawthorne’s direct subordinates. The woman with curly malachite hair and deep red eyes was Varuna, and the man with short lapis hair and dull gray eyes was Albion. They were twins, both the exact same height, and with the same teardrop moles under both of their eyes. If it weren’t for those moles, it would be hard to tell they were related.

“Varuna, Albion. I take it you’re apprised of Hawthorne’s antics.” Mikhaeyla said.

“Sir Hawthorne thought the best way to test new recruits was to have them try to push him. If they can make him take even a single step backward, they pass.” Albion told her.

“Of course he’d come up with something like that...” Mikhaeyla said, placing her hand on her cheek. “I’d be surprised if any of the guards could accomplish such a feat. There’s no way a regular citizen would pass this test.”

“Alright, who's next? Step forward!” they heard Hawthorne roar.

“But that’s just it, Your Majesty.” Varuna said. “The citizens are not trained fighters, and we don’t have time to train them before we induct them into the Order. If we were to add a citizen to our ranks, they would have to be naturally gifted enough to pass such a test.”

“And just for the record, my sister and I both passed.” Albion added.

Mikhaeyla grinned. “Is that so? Then I’ll be counting on the both of you.”

Suddenly, the crowd filled with gasps of shock and awe. The three of them turned to look, and couldn’t believe their eyes. Hawthorne was pushed back, as evidenced by the trenches his boots had dug through the ground. And the one who succeeded was a small girl, who looked even shorter than Mikhaeyla’s human niece, Sitri.

“Well, that’s something you don’t see every day...” Mikhaeyla whispered.

“Hm. Incredible work! You pass! What is your name?” Hawthorne bellowed, not seeming to mind his loss.

“I... I’m Ceres.” the girl said quietly.

“My word. She doesn’t even look older than eighty.” Varuna said.

“There’s that natural talent we were looking for, I suppose.” Albion said.

Ceres was small indeed, with fluffy white hair that looked like it had been cut from the clouds. It was so long, it almost seemed to shield her. Her hazelnut eyes were big and round, but held a look of sadness in them. She had gray, curled horns, identifying her as a mixed-blood demon. Like Varuna and Albion, she had light brown skin, almost aglow in the morning’s light. Her white one-piece dress was obviously not military, so she was a civilian from St. Versailles. What an interesting development, Mikhaeyla thought.

I missed what happened, but her magic power must be incredible for one of her age and size if she could move Hawthorne. I should like to speak with her.

Mikhaeyla met eyes with Hawthorne, and he nodded. He directed Ceres toward her. The small girl toddled over, and her face was overtaken with reverence when she saw that it was Demon King Mikhaeyla she would be greeting.

“Yuh! Your Majesty! I can’t believe...” she stammered.

“Compose yourself! You must show proper respect if you are to be a member of Her Majesty’s knights!” Albion warned, causing her to flinch.

“Relax. You know that I do not care for formality.” Mikhaeyla said, placing a hand on his shoulder and stepping forward. “It is lovely to meet you, Ceres. I am impressed that you earned Hawthorne’s approval, but as you are not a member of the guard, I want to learn your background. How old are you?”

"I-I... I’m sixteen...” she said meekly.

“What?!” Varuna and Albion exclaimed in unison.

Mikhaeyla covered her mouth in surprise. “You’re not even an adult yet?! My goodness... That’s quite a shock. Why would one so young seek to join an order of knights?”

“It’s because... It’s because of Whittleton. That’s where my mom was born. She and my dad were visiting when it... When...”

Her voice was stuck in her throat. Judging by the tears spilling out from her eyes, it wasn’t difficult to fill in what was missing from her sentence. Mikhaeyla bit her lip in pity.

“You poor girl... I’m sorry to hear that. I’m relieved you weren’t there with them, at least.”

“It was just supposed to be a short stop to see my grandparents... I never thought they’d...” Ceres sniffled.

Varuna and Albion exchanged mournful glances. The girl’s story was sad, to be sure, though unfortunately not an uncommon one. However, in Mikhaeyla’s eyes, it became the reason for her disqualification.

“I am truly sorry, Ceres, but if that is your reason, then I cannot allow you into the Order.” Mikhaeyla said sternly.

“What? Why not! I... I want to fight! I want to get back at Beelzebub! Please let me join!” Ceres begged.

“That is exactly why I won’t allow it. The Grand Demonic Knights are not to be a tool for seeking revenge. Our role is to protect those who cannot protect themselves.” Mikhaeyla said.

Ceres’s eyes widened, and she hung her head sadly. Mikhaeyla observed her for a few moments before speaking again.

“Considering your situation... If you have no one to care for you, please speak with Hawthorne again and tell him I want your home in the city to be maintained for you, until you’re able to provide for yourself. That should be all... Goodbye, now, Ceres. I hope you fare well.”

Mikhaeyla turned away from the girl, beckoning for Varuna and Albion to follow her. Ceres stood unmoving, her whole body trembling, her fists clenched and shaking. She felt bad for turning her away like that, but she felt it was the responsible thing to do. Watching the young girl reminded her of her own niece.

I hope I was being unbiased... I just don’t want this girl forming an obsession like Sitri seems to have. They’re almost the same age, too... I know that Sitri is capable, and so are Link and Tetra and their crew, but the fewer young lives that are put in harm’s way, the better. That is the right choice, isn’t it?

“Are you sure about that, Your Majesty? Sure, she’s a child, but if she was able to push Sir Hawthorne...” Varuna said.

“I know. But I just don’t wish for young blood to be spilled any more than it has to be. One of her tender age shouldn’t have to think about such things.” she said quietly.

“I understand. I will respect your decision, whatever it may be.” Albion said. “Now, if I may ask, where are we going? We seem to be leaving the training yard.”

“Yes. As you two have already passed and are officially members of the Grand Demonic Knights, I want to take you with me. We are going to investigate Beelzebub’s past.” she told them.

“Right now? You certainly work fast. Impressive as always, my lady.” Varuna said. “I’m afraid I don’t know too much about him. Where did he used to serve?”

Mikhaeyla turned to face them squarely. “Beelzebub was the Demon Lord that served Demon King Vanaheit. The same man that Zoie, the Laughing Reaper, claims was his father. And the Vanaheit territory, before it fell into their hands, was once the territory that belonged to Demon King Malladus.”

Both Varuna and Albion went pale and swallowed dryly. The gravity of such a connection impressed itself upon them, making it hard for them to respond. They simply nodded.

Yes... Zoie and Beelzebub are connected somehow. That is the part that doesn’t make sense. They don’t seem to be working together at all, and Zoie himself has no interest in anything other than fighting strong opponents. If there is a reason for this, it might be found there... The remains of the Vanaheit manor, still untouched after the incident forty years ago.

With nothing more to say, Mikhaeyla turned back away from them and opened a magic portal in front of herself. She had been to the edge of Vanaheit territory, but not at the manor, and she couldn’t travel to places she’d never visited in person before. Not unless she had something to track, like a magic signature. But there was no such convenience here. They would have to walk the rest of the way after crossing through the portal.

The all-too-familiar sensation of being squeezed through a crack in a wall enveloped Mikhaeyla’s senses, and before she knew it, she stepped out to arrive at an entirely new place. She had reached a far-flung corner of the Mystic Realm, a range of alpine peaks that housed the Vanaheit territory. In the heart of this range was the city of Saint Aurillac, where the deceased Demon King once reigned.

Mikhaeyla looked over her shoulder to confirm that Varuna and Albion had successfully followed her, and they each appeared from the portal in the same step. Varuna always got motion sickness from traveling through portals, and Albion was helpfully patting her back. But then someone else jumped through the portal. Someone who wasn’t supposed to be there.

Ceres had followed them.

“What?! What do you think you’re doing, kid!” Albion barked at her.

“You’re intruding on... urk... on a private mission led by Lady Mikhaeyla herself. You’re in big trouble, young lady.” Varuna managed to growl, despite her spinning stomach.

The girl yelped in fright, but didn’t retreat back through the portal. “I... I just...!” she tried to say.

“Ceres, I don’t appreciate a stunt like this. I am disappointed in you. Leave immediately.” Mikhaeyla ordered, her voice cold as ice.

Now she looked like she wanted to curl up on the ground and cry. She was melting under her steely glare. But still, she did not buckle. She gripped the hem of her shirt tightly and, though she struggled heavily, though she was about to burst into tears, she looked Mikhaeyla in the eye.

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty. I’ll accept any punishment you give me later. But please... I want to join you! I promise I won’t think about revenge! It doesn’t have to be about that! I mean, I want revenge, sure... But more than that, I just wanna do something to help! I don’t... I can’t do nothing... Not when this could happen to someone else... Please...”

Ceres’s heartfelt pleading moved Mikhaeyla’s heart. She really did remind her of Sitri. It was getting harder and harder to dismiss the poor girl. She was earnest and reckless, and if she was willing to do something as crazy as this, there was no telling what she would do if left to her own devices.

I suppose it’s the same logic that led me to allow Sitri to do as she pleases... If she’s going to do it anyway, I might as well make sure she can do it safely.

Mikhaeyla sighed heavily. She put her hands on her hips and scrutinized the young girl. The harder she stared at her, the more Ceres seemed to turn into a puddle of tears. At last, she gave in.

“Very well. On the condition that you never do something like this again, I will allow you to accompany us.” Mikhaeyla said.

“R-really?! You mean it?” Ceres lit up excitedly.

“Ah... Should’ve seen this coming. Our liege is weak to her type...” Varuna whispered.

“Don’t say that! What if she hears you?” Albion whispered back.

Mikhaeyla shot them a look, which frighteningly informed them that she did, in fact, hear them. Then she cleared her throat. “Come. The sooner we complete our mission, the sooner we can get the Grand Demonic Knights on their feet and return to Hyleigh.”

“Yes, Your Majesty!” the three knights replied together.

They began to walk toward the mountains. Varuna finally felt well enough to walk without her brother’s arm for support, and she inched closer to Ceres.

“Hey. You’re a knight now, so make sure you live up to that responsibility. This isn’t a game. It’s life or death.” she warned her.

“Y-yes! I’ll do my best!” Ceres said nervously.

“You’d better. Don’t dishonor Lady Mikhaeyla with a poor showing. If you could move Sir Hawthorne, of all people, that puts you on even ground with us, in spite of your age. So don’t expect any special treatment!” Albion told her.

“N-no, sir! I won’t!”

Mikhaeyla listened to their conversation and let out a quiet huff of air. Perhaps those two are right. Maybe I couldn’t remain unbiased, after all... Still, she’s one of us now. Only time will tell if it was the right decision.

* * *

Many hours passed by as the group walked. Hiking up into the mountains was tiring, but it had to be done. Eventually, they came upon St. Aurillac, or what was left of it. The place was a ghost town, completely deserted and devoid of life. The land had grown barren and the rivers that ran through it dried out. The setting sun’s heat beat down on them from above, but none of the buildings were fit to provide shade anymore.

“What happened here? Where are all the people?” Ceres asked.

“St. Aurillac was abandoned after Vanaheit’s death. He was never known to have any children, so there was no one to succeed him. And so the people picked up and moved on, spreading out to live in other territories.” Mikhaeyla explained. “As you can see, no one moved back in to claim the place, not even monsters. It now stands as a ghost town, beyond all hope of revival.”

“How awful...” Ceres said sadly.

“Look, up the hill overlooking the place... That’s where Vanaheit’s manor used to be, right?” Varuna said, pointing toward it.

“Yes. I can’t see any sign of a building up there. Is there even anything left to find?” Albion wondered.

“That’s what we’re here to discover. Let’s move.” Mikhaeyla said.

Together, the group of knights marched through the ghost town, kicking up small clouds of dust and dirt as they walked. They had to stomp over a lot of rotting debris in their way. Not even any wild animals wanted to live in such a rundown place. It was eerily quiet, save for the wind groaning through the dilapidated buildings.

When they climbed the hill to where the manor used to be, all they found was a foundation scorched beyond belief. Hardly any signs of where the walls had been remained, much less furniture or fixtures. It was difficult to tell what was what.

“My word... How can there be so little left?” Varuna said.

“Hm... It was forty years ago, after all. I’m sure the regional authorities combed it very thoroughly. Still, if there’s any chance they missed something...” Albion said.

“The prevailing theory is that Beelzebub slaughtered Vanaheit and vanished into the wind, burning down the manor to cover his tracks. His body was not found in the manor with all of the others, so it was a natural conclusion to draw. If not for what Zoie said to me, I’d believe it, myself.” Mikhaeyla said.

“Zoie claims that he killed Vanaheit, his own father... But do we need to prove that?” Varuna asked.

“We may not have to, no. But I still wish to know the entire truth. At the very least, I don’t believe Zoie is lying, and yet I also don’t believe he burned down the manor. His magic produces cold flames. If the fire here was cold, a detail so unique would have certainly made it into any investigative reports. But there was no such thing written down anywhere.” Mikhaeyla said.

“What about Vanaheit’s cause of death?” Albion asked.

“His body was burned so badly, it was impossible to tell if he had any wounds. He was recognized by his crown and the fact that his body was discovered in his own bed. If Zoie had killed him, the fire erased all proof of it.” Mikhaeyla explained.

“Maybe that was the point... Maybe Beelzebub set fire to the place to cover up Zoie’s deeds? But what would he have to gain from doing that? And if that is what happened, why aren't they working together?” Albion pondered.

“There’s still so much we don’t know... I’m not sure if we can figure that out just from examining this place. I hate to say it, but I think this may be a lost cause-” Varuna said.

She was interrupted by a loud cracking sound. The three whipped around to find Ceres laying face-first flat on the ground, moaning in pain. At her foot, where she had clearly tripped, a part of the ground seemed to be gradually opening up.

“Oh, no! Ceres, move!” Varuna yelled.

“Ow... Wait, what?!” Ceres cried.

The ground beneath her gave way, pushing a lot of ash into the air. The girl’s screams echoed as she seemed to tumble down into some sort of tunnel. Her fellow knights ran to her aid, unable to see anything through the cloud of ash. When they arrived at the spot where she fell, they were shocked to find a staircase that hadn’t been there before.

“No way... A secret passage?” Albion said in awe.

“This wasn’t in any of the reports... We must be the first ones to find it.” Mikhaeyla said. “Ceres! Are you okay?”

“Yeah... But... You should come see this, Your Majesty.” her voice echoed from within.

Sharing wary glances with each other, the three of them began descending the stairs. Mikhaeyla went first, creating a floating sphere of light that circled around her head. This spell acted as a torch, allowing them to see into the darkness. They found themselves in some sort of underground cellar. Following the stone tunnel further in, they found Ceres looking at them anxiously.

Without speaking, she pointed ahead of herself. The room opened out before their eyes, lined with pillars that were cracked and leaking dust and pebbles. Streams of such debris also poured from the ceiling at irregular intervals, calling the structural integrity of the room into question. It was so musty, it was hard to breathe. It took them a minute to take it all in, and so they didn’t register what Ceres was pointing to immediately.

Mikhaeyla was the first to see it. “Oh... That is... a lot of blood.” she said.

Indeed, the floor was splattered horrifically with it. It was dried out so much that it crumbled to dust when she knelt down to touch it with a gauntleted hand. Whatever happened down in this dark place, it happened forty years ago.

“Must have been some bloodbath...” Varuna whistled.

“That’s not all... Look at that.” Albion said shakily.

It was their turn to follow his eyes now. And when they did, Mikhaeyla felt her heart jump into her throat. Her fists clenched together tightly as her skin broke out into goosebumps. Just seeing that horrible visage was enough to provoke a dizzying response of vitriol and disgust.

On the far wall at the back of the room hung a portrait. It was faded and torn in several places, and there was plenty of blood spatter covering the bottom half of it. But the face, that is, the subject was still clearly visible. It was unmistakably a portrait of Demon King Malladus.

“That’s Malladus... If this is here, does that mean Vanaheit and his family were pureblood fanatics obsessed with him, too?” Albion said.

“Just like Beelzebub is now...” Varuna breathed. “I guess that makes sense. This was his territory before the Vanaheits moved in.”

“S-so... That means, Zoie was raised by Malladus’s believers? But then... Why is he...” Ceres said.

“I don’t know... But the mystery is deepening once again. Are we one step closer to solving it, or are we getting further away? This is frustrating...” Mikhaeyla said, biting her thumb.

If Vanaheit was a Malladus fanatic, he hid it very well. I suppose that’s why this is here in a hidden cellar. If his home was searched and this was discovered, it would have raised a lot of red flags. I wonder if that’s why the manor was burned... To delay such findings... But then, why was Vanaheit killed in the first place? Why was the fact that he had a son kept secret? And why are Zoie and Beelzebub not acknowledging each other?

“Just what happened to you, Zoie...” she whispered to herself.

Third Movement: The Ballad of Demons

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