Homac the black mage stood alone in a chamber of darkness, blackness so impenetrable that he could not see his own hands in front of his face. He did not know how he arrived here, nor where he was. The magician tried to call out, but a sharp pain in his throat stopped him from making any sound. Suddenly, the events of the last few days came flooding back to him.
He remembered arriving in Cornelia and learning from the king that the princess Sarah had been kidnapped. He remembered studying dark tomes in the candlelit black magic shop, ancient and terrible texts of corruption and destruction. He remembered the day’s march to the Chaos Shrine, and the terrible monsters that they met inside. He remembered the crushing pain of a warg wolf’s jaws around his throat, and it was this pain that had ushered him into the darkness that enveloped him now.
As his memory returned to him, all around he began to see things. Shadows within shadows, vague shapes moved through the blackness so quickly that only the breeze from their passing told Homac he wasn’t alone. He suddenly felt something grasping at the arm of his robe. The magician pulled his arm away and turned to move, but more hands were grasping him and pulling him in all directions. He could hear noises now, heavy breathing and guttural growls that conveyed a desperate hunger. Homac tried to cry out, to mutter a spell, to do anything to save himself, but he had no power in this place.
You deserve to be here, a voice said, startling him. You embraced the darkness to destroy your enemies. Now, let the darkness embrace you forever. Homac tried to cry out once more, to no avail. Just as he was about to give up, another voice cut through all the noise, this one crisp and loud in comparison to the insidious whispers and the desperate breathing.
“Arise, fallen warrior!”
Homac shot up into a sitting position, gasping for breath through his torn throat. It was still dark but in this room he could clearly see a number of familiar faces. Elia, a white mage in his adventuring party, was chanting prayers to her gods and sending healing energy washing over his body. Sarisa, a thief, grabbed Homac’s clothes from the floor and brought them to her newly-living friend. His body healed and clothed, the black mage sat in a bit of a confused stupor for a moment.
“How do you feel, my friend?” The question came from Desh, a fighter and the leader of the Warriors of Light. Homac lifted his hand in front of his face. He could see again – though it was dark, some light filtered through the stained glass windows that gave a bit of illumination to the room. Wanting to see all of the shadows flee, Homac snapped his fingers and lit all of the candles in a room in a single display of dark magic. Seeing the darkness retreat from his light gave the black mage a strange joy, and he chuckled at the sight of it.
“Oh, me? I feel excellent.”
The rest of the evening was spent at the inn – the party was worn after a hard day’s journey, and many of them had not had time to recover after their battle at the Chaos Shrine. Each party member busied themselves in their own way. Elia, concerned for Homac’s safety and fascinated by what she assumed was his time in the realm of the heavens, watched over the black mage closely and peppered him with questions. Desh went to a nearby shop and purchased some needed supplies for the party. Sarisa, for her part, got in some knife practice, stabbing the blade between her fingers at lightning speed or juggling multiple knives at one time. When night came, the party rested to prepare themselves for the journey to the Chaos Shrine.
Their trek across the forests and plains around Cornelia went much faster this time than it had during their first journey. Sarisa knew the land better now and led the party safely past the goblin encampments and wolf dens. With no monster scrabbles to slow them down, the journey took them less than a day. They came to the Chaos Shrine and once again looked upon the shattered columns and faded marble. Desh gave a worried look towards Homac, but the black mage showed no signs of cowing. Instead, he took the initiative to prepare a torch for the party and led them through their first steps into the building.
The construction of the Chaos Shrine was rather simple. One long circuitous hallway led all the way around the building while a smaller second hallway circled around the central chamber of the shrine. Smaller halls connected the inner and outer hallways, allowing those moving through the shrine to pass from the outer ring to the inner ring or vice versa at any of the cardinal points of the shrine. Where the four cardinal directions connected the rings, the four corners of the shrine each held a small room.
The two rooms on the west side of the building were unlocked, each one containing some storage chests. Whether these chests belonged to Garland, to the goblins that roamed the halls, or to some more ancient resident of the shrine was hard to say. They were able to find some useful supplies – a spare tent to provide shelter outside, and a leather hat fit to Sarisa’s tastes that would also cushion blows to the head somewhat. The east side of the shrine, however, was locked tight, and neither Sarisa’s lockpicking skill nor the magical knowledge of Elia or Homac proved capable of opening the door. Desh finally tried to force it, but all of their efforts combined did nothing to make the strange doors budge.
While monsters did harass them somewhat in the shrine, the party was more prepared this time. Elia had her Dia spell ready for large groups of undead, calling holy light from the sky that blasted all of them at once. Her first display of this crippling magic seemed to cow the other monsters hidden in the shrine, and most of them left the party well alone except for the occasional brave ghoul that decided to approach. Every foe was dispatched quickly and after a thorough exploration of the shrine, the party stood before the door which led to the central chamber.
“Garland is likely in here,” Elia said. “This is the center of the shrine’s dark power. Are we ready for this?” Homac gave a chuckle and the flame on his torch seemed to grow a bit brighter.
“No darkness can before our light,” he replied. “Let Garland try to smother us. We will show him our true brilliance and burn him to a crisp in the process.”
“Careful,” Sarisa warned. “The king said that Garland is his most powerful knight. We’re not messing with a common goblin. This man has training and quality weapons. We’ve…” She didn’t finish her sentence, but the obvious ending was failed against less. Desh took a step forward and drew his hammer, holding it ready at his side.
“Let’s proceed with caution.”
The central chamber was a wide room, but felt claustrophobic due to all the ornamentation. Much of the space was filled with support columns and worn statues. The latter were no longer recognizable for their original forms. Elia looked at them and saw faded angels – Homac instead saw demon hounds. A large blue gemstone sat in a golden stand in the center of the room, and lying on the floor before the stone was the princess Sarah. She was hard to see, though, obscured as she was by Garland.
The dark knight struck an imposing figure, taller and broader than Desh with nicer armor and a grand, sweeping cloak. His horned helm gave him a devilish silhouette, and when he turned to face the warriors of light, they could not see his face beneath his helmet. Only his eyes were visible, and they seemed to glow a foul red from within the darkness of his mask.
“How dare you interrupt our alone time,” he said. His voice reverberated throughout the central chamber, its depth and power amplified by the natural acoustics of the room. “The princess and I were just having a lovely conversation about where we wished to have our honeymoon.” Desh stepped forward and pointed his hammer directly at Garland.
“The princess will never be forced into marriage by a fiend such as you!” Suddenly, Sarah rose up behind Garland and put her hands on the knight’s shoulders.
“Uh, actually, I’m not being forced,” Sarah replied. “Garland is my boyfriend. We’ve been together for over a year. Daddy won’t let us get married, so we’re going to elope! Isn’t that romantic?” The four warriors of light looked at each other with quirked eyebrows.
“So, you’re saying you haven’t been kidnapped?” Sarisa asked. Sarah gave an enthusiastic nod. Garland turned towards her and leaned in. They couldn’t kiss through his helmet, but Sarah pressed her nose against the mask and nuzzled it, grinning from ear to ear. The knight then turned to the party.
“This was the safest place for us to run on such short notice. The cityfolk and guards are terrified of the Chaos Shrine – they’d never come near it. And the monsters here are SO weak, there’s no way anybody could be seriously harmed.” Elia cast a sidelong glance at Homac, whose white-knuckled fist answered any suspicions she might have had about his reaction to that statement.
“Well this certainly changes things,” Desh said, lowering his hammer. “We thought you kidnapped the princess and were a servant of the darkness!” Garland’s eyes narrowed.
“I would never kidnap the princess…but I am a servant of the darkness.” Sarah quickly chimed in after him.
“But what’s that matter with that? It’s 1018, after all. People can worship the darkness without getting the third degree.” Desh and Sarisa looked at each other, unsure of what to do. Elia was shaking her head.
“This isn’t like choosing your favorite Chocobo Racing team,” Elia said. “The darkness represents all that is awful about the world. Darkness is rotting the earth and stopping the seas. If light isn’t restored, our world will be destroyed.” Garland gave a grand sigh and shrugged his shoulders.
“The destruction of the world is inevitable. The darkness teaches us that we should accept and embrace the world’s fate. We must live lives of pleasure and happiness while we still can. Everything fades into darkness and nothing matters, so we should enjoy our meaningless existences before our life candles are snuffed out. We have but one life to live, after all.”
“Aw, cute, someone paid attention during their philosophy lecture,” Sarisa said, her biting tone causing Garland to narrow his red eyes even further. “That doesn’t change the law of the land, Garland. You can’t just run off with the princess. If the king doesn’t acknowledge your marriage, it won’t be official. You’ll be hounded by mercenaries or warriors of light for the rest of your days.”
Garland threw back his cloak and revealed the sword at his side.
“You seek to return the princess to her father? You will have to kill me to do so. But it is not possible. With the darkness at my back, I shall send you to the afterlife!” Desh readied his hammer again and Sarisa drew her sword. Behind them, they heard a faint chuckle. The chuckle began to build in passion and volume until it exploded into hysterical laughter. The warriors turned to see Homac gripping his sides as he doubled over in laughter. He then stared directly at Garland with his glowing yellow eyes.
“I’ve already been,” the black mage replied, “and frankly, you’re much less intimidating. You love the darkness so much? Allow me to introduce you personally!”
With a wave of his hand, Homac unleashed a sphere of whirling flame. The fireball launched straight towards Garland, who split the magical ball asunder with a sweep of his blade. The knight began to approach the black mage, but was cut off by Desh and Sarisa, who moved in together to block Garland’s path. The two fought with practiced skill, Desh forcing the knight into a defensive position with a hammer strike and Sarisa using the opening to jab in between his armor plates with her rapier.
Behind them, the spellcasters went to work. Homac began to chant a spell for Thunder, lightning crackling in his hands as he called upon the elements for strength. For her part, Elia prayed fervently for protection for her ally. The black mage lost his life once already in this place – she would not allow it to happen again. A golden aura appeared around Homac to reduce the impact of any harm that befell him. With the golden light amplifying his presence, he lashed out and sent lightning crashing into Garland’s body, the knight stumbling backward in agony.
“Ooh, you guys think you’re so tough!” Sarah said, livid. “Four against one is not fair odds! Stop ganging up on my future husband!”
Garland charged forward and dealt a swift series of sword strikes against Desh, the fighter’s unwieldy hammer unable to block every blow. But in spite of the fine quality of Garland’s sword, Desh’s armor turned the blade away without fail, leaving the fighter bruised but otherwise fine after each blow. Sarisa jumped in to block a sword strike with her own blade, giving Desh an opportunity to deliver a crushing blow to the knight’s body with the head of the hammer. Garland’s armor collapsed under the force of the blow, a jagged piece of broken plating jabbing into his shoulder and leaving the left side of his chest exposed.
Elia cast a second protection spell on her own body, but it proved unnecessary. Garland could not push past the wall that was Desh, the fighter firmly standing his ground and taking blow after blow. This gave Homac the opening he needed to spray fire onto the knight, Desh skillfully moving out of the way just as the whirling fireball struck Garland. The man cried out in agony as his flesh burned within his now-searing armor, giving Sarisa the opportunity to drive her rapier through the opening in the knight’s chest plate. Her sword drove straight through to his heart, and Garland collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Sarah ran to his body and collapsed to her knees beside him. The warriors of light sheathed their weapons as the princess knelt over the body of her slain lover. Homac was still rubbing his hands with glee – Sarisa reached over to him and held his hands still, giving him a firm shake of her head to indicate that this was not the time. Desh made as if to reach out a hand to Sarah, but stopped himself, unsure of what to do. Elia simply muttered a quiet prayer to her gods.
Finally, after a few minutes of quiet sobbing, Sarah rose to her feet.
“It is unfitting for a princess to so openly display her feelings,” she said quietly. “They are, after all, signs of attachment to something that was fated to be embraced by darkness. I should not be surprised. This was inevitable, and ultimately the manner of Garland’s death is as meaningless as the life he lived. If there are indeed gods, they put him here only to serve as an obstacle for people like you. Now, I must do my part too. We shall return to the castle, where my father will reward you for your…noble…deeds. Come. It is a long journey to Cornelia.”
Without another word, the princess marched forward towards the door that led back out into the Chaos Shrine. As she passed through the doorway, the warriors of light simply turned and followed single-file behind her. Together, the five made their way back to the city of Cornelia. As promised, a ceremony was held and the bridge to the north rebuilt in the meantime. During all the commotion, Sarah took aside Desh to speak alone in a private corner of the throne room. She had with her an object wrapped in a black cloth.
“This lute is a sacred treasure of the Cornelian royal family,” she said. “It has been passed down from princess to princess for generations. Now, I hand it over to you. I believe it will be a necessary part of your journey.” Desh placed a hand on the back of his head and rustled his hair.
“I’m not sure I can accept this, milady,” he said. “Something terrible happened to you and…I am responsible for that. Regardless of how my friends and I might have felt about Garland or the beliefs he stood for, he was still a human being. And regardless of your own thoughts on whether or not your relationship had any lasting meaning, I believe that taking him away from you was an awful thing to do. Necessary, perhaps, but awful all the same.” Sarah gave a weak smile.
“You did your duty to the light,” she replied, “as I must now do mine. Take the lute, brave fighter. Use it to help you restore light to the crystals and stave off the darkness of the world…for a time.”
“Thank you, milady.” Desh gave Sarah a small bow, to which she waved her hand dismissively.
“Go and rejoin your companions,” she replied. “They will not get far without their leader.”
With that, the fighter made his way out of the castle and back into town. The warriors of light would soon set out beyond Cornelia, beginning the first leg in their long journey to stop the powers of darkness. These last difficult days had been only a prologue of what would come next, and as Desh felt the weight of the lute on his back, he felt too the weight of his actions upon his shoulders. What else would they have to do in service of the light? And was doing whatever it took to bring an end to the darkness worth the damage it caused to their souls? He put those thoughts aside for now. Plenty of time to think on everything after the deed was done.
Is this the last that our heroes have seen of Garland’s ideology? What horrors await the warriors of light on the other side of the north bridge? And how the heck is Desh supposed to save the world with a lute? Find out in the next chapter of Finally Finishing Final Fantasy!