Scarlet sparks streaked through the skies over the festival as the fire continued to burn.
Moons of various sizes joined the twinkling stars in the night sky over Planet Cray.
The Blaze Maidens danced around the flames in a trance, forming the Circle of Harmony.
The sun rose, set, and rose once again, yet still they kept dancing tirelessly, as their predecessors had done for generations.
Red Dawn Manor.
Both the temple, located near the center of the Dragon Empire, and the arcane rituals that were performed there could be traced back to the very beginnings of the Human race itself. Generation after generation of Blaze Maidens have dedicated their lives to the temple and to the protection of the treasures within. That is, until the Chakrabarthi Divine Era was set into motion.
“Why me…? I really should have been in that circle.”
Rino finished tying up her luggage, then let out yet another deep sigh. She loved singing, dancing, and talking, so the current situation was particularly galling to her.
Rino felt a presence down by her feet. As she looked down, a pair of glowing eyes looked back up.
There was a large egg standing on two legs, with a tail sticking out of its shell, and two eyes peering out from a crack in the middle.
“Rino, rather than asking, ‘why me?’ you should be asking yourself, ‘why now?'”
“Master.” Rino struck a respectful pose.
An old man who acted as the Blaze Maidens’ teacher had appeared behind her. As a high priest of Red Dawn Manor, he had no name. People who decided to dedicate their lives to the temple gave up their names so as to better serve the sun and the holy dragons. That was why everyone only ever called him “Master.”
“I would like to tell you about an upcoming trip.”
Rino hung her head in silence. Her usual energy was nowhere to be found. She was still young, but she was chosen to be a Blaze Maiden at the oldest temple on Planet Cray.
“As you know, you will be tasked with traveling the stars while protecting Sunrise Egg, to help raise it. From the moment you were chosen when the egg hatched, this has been your destiny.”
“You know little of the outside world. What news we get of the wider world becomes more troubling every day. I wish I had more comforting words for you. But this journey will not be easy.”
“Erm, Master… I just don’t know if I’m ready for this…”
“Rino, I have no doubt that you will perform your duties admirably. Your heart is pure. Your eyes have not yet been clouded by the evils of this world.”
The old man smiled warmly. It was the first time that Rino had seen the normally strict Master smile.
“Your voice and smile have bathed this old temple in a warmth it hasn’t known for generations. I shall miss you.”
Rino was at a loss for words. It was as though she was only now realizing how much she loved the temple, and all the people within it. Her eyes filled with tears.
“Now, get going. And may the sun and the Holy Dragon bless you and your journey.”
“May the sun and the Holy Dragon bless you too. Farewell, Master.”
The Master departed.
Rino bowed at his departing figure, then one last time she looked out at the Blaze Maidens and the circle where, under normal circumstances, she would have been dancing with her sisters.
Where she should have been.
“How much longer are we going to stand around doing nothing?” A calm, soothing voice shook the air.
“If you don’t stop blubbering, I’ll leave you behind, Rino,” came a voice that could easily have been mistaken for a boy’s.
“Yeah, we’ve spent sooo long getting ready for this,” said a sweet little voice.
The surprised Rino turned to see Reiyu, Zonne, and Rona (an older maiden, one around Rino’s age, and a younger maiden, respectively). Her friends, who had become like sisters to her, were ready to set off on their journey.
Before Rino could finish her exclamation, the other three Blaze Maidens pulled her along.
“As if we were going to let you go out there alone,” said Rona. Rino couldn’t help but smile as she heard Rona’s slightly clumsy attempt at being serious.
“And you could do worse for traveling companions than me,” added Zonne. Rino always felt encouraged by the lively Zonne.
“Traveling companion… But… What about your eggs?” asked Rino. Each Blaze Maiden was given an egg to look after. They were not meant to leave their wards without permission.
“We have given our eggs in for safekeeping. We’re all in the same boat. Rino, you know that, right? You can’t refuse us now,” said Reiyu. She was wise beyond her years, a real older sister to the others. Though in this case it wasn’t so much that Rino believed Reiyu, so much as Rino couldn’t think of a way to refute her.
“What? Are we going on a boat now?”
“It was a figure of speech. It means we’re all in this together.”
“And how is that different from the usual?”
Rino was still struggling to come up with a response to the giggling Rona and Zonne when she felt something down by her feet.
It was Sunrise Egg, a giant egg that had been worshiped in the temple for centuries until that day. It was looking up at Rino, telling her to go.
“Yes, we have to go. For the egg. For everyone.”
Rino looked up, and then took out the “Horn of Blessings” that she had been given.
This was an old ritual that all Blaze Maidens must perform any time they go on a journey, not that many of them ever got the chance to leave Red Dawn Manor.
The powerful sound from Rino’s horn, a call for hope, echoed out into the mountains and beyond to all in the Dragon Empire.
Zonne, Rona, and Reiyu all continued to blow their horns after they had finished saying their farewells to the temple.
And so Rino departed into the great unknown. Accompanied by her friends, an abundance of luggage, and a strange little traveling companion.
The hounds’ barking came echoing down the dark hallway.
“This is bad. Abban, we need to find somewhere to hide.”
“That won’t work. The dogs have our scent now, Gaddy. We have to run.”
The boy called Abban shook his head, which was crowned with silvery hair.
Gaddy brushed his hand through his dark hair, astonished by his friend’s rebuttal.
The two boys continued running.
They were in some ruins deep below ground. The only light came from the fluorescent lamp they had brought with them. The floors, walls, and ceilings were highly decorated, almost like some grand mansion, and they went this way and that. They were lost in that labyrinth. The boys ran and ran, but they couldn’t find a way out.
Keter Sanctuary was located in the northwest of the Dragonia continent.
Around 3000 years earlier, while that nation was known as United Sanctuary, the capital city of Sacred Albion was destroyed, and the ruling class moved to the Heavenly Floating Islands of Ketergia. A great funnel-like structure was built in the center of what was left of the city on the surface to secure the islands in place.
It was a warm spring morning when Gaddy had invited his old friend Abban on a treasure hunt in the old city.
“Interesting. But no.”
Abban, who was sitting behind the counter at his father’s antique bookstore, refused his friend’s offer without looking up from his tablet.
“Come on. Please, I can’t do it without you. You’re really handy in a fight.”
The dark-haired Gaddy and silver-haired Abban were as inseparable as a pair of twins.
In some ways the two couldn’t be more different. Gaddy was a large, lively, forthright son of a blacksmith, who happened to love poetry and music. Abban was a slender young boy who had grown up surrounded by the seemingly infinite amount of information that could be found on the Albion Net. He also happened to be an expert swordsman. The adults laughed as they saw the odd pair walk by, but the local children flocked to them to learn the latest games they had invented.
“You’re looking for buried treasure, aren’t you? Even though you know that to take even a pebble from an important archaeological site is illegal.”
Abban was still looking intently at the tablet screen. They were both 13 years old. They had known each other for as long as they could remember, and Abban had always acted like the big brother of the pair.
“I’m not looking to make money off what I find. I just think that what belonged to our ancestors ought to belong to us. Besides, I was only thinking of getting a few dusty old books for my room…”
“Those ruins are proof enough of our ancestors’ lives. We should let them rest in peace.”
“Fine, don’t come then. Ah, but I was going to let you use my dad’s new sword. And I’ve found a new spot to dig…”
For the first time the sliver-haired youth looked up from his tablet.
They had lost track of how long they’d been running.
Abban came sliding to a halt and called out to his friend to do the same.
“Wait. We’re at the main hall.”
“Hmm? This doesn’t look familiar.”
Gaddy’s reflexes were unmatched. He peered through the door just moments after Abban.
“There’s no one in there.”
“How do you know? And who were those guys with the dogs anyway? It’s not like we’ve stolen anything yet,” continued Gaddy.
“This is the deepest part of these ruins. I think it’s some kind of sanctuary.”
“I see. You’re telling me this is some secret underground sanctuary, Professor Abban?”
“Something like that. And we never would’ve found it if you hadn’t fallen through that doorway…”
“Thanks for the help. Things got pretty tricky in the end.”
“What would I have told your father if I’d let you come here yourself? Regardless, we’ve been too reckless!”
The normally calm and collected Abban was finally showing some emotion. He seemed regretful.
“Can it really be called reckless when we had no idea the hole was going to be that deep? It was like that wind was sucking us in there, and then it was almost like a slide down here.”
“Maybe this whole place is just a trap.”
Abban stepped into the hall.
Abban reassured Gaddy as he stepped into the center of the hall, sword in hand. Abban had two specialties: persuasion and sword fighting.
“Come on. Or is this too frightening for the mighty blacksmith’s son?”
“Damn it, I can’t lose to some son of a bookstore owner.”
Gaddy followed, readying his hammer-ax.
“I can’t see the ceiling,” said Abban.
Gaddy raised his fluorescent lamp and peered into the darkness.
“Just how big is this place…? It’s almost…”
“It’s a place where countless knights have gathered before. The Shadow Paladins,” concluded Abban.
“What!? The Shadow Paladins’ headquarters? How did we get here?”
Gaddy’s confusion was understandable. By the Chakrabarthi Divine Era the Shadow Paladins were the stuff of legend to the citizens of Keter Sanctuary.
“I see. So you didn’t notice the hole we fell through.”
“What about it?”
“I think it was a hole in space-time. It disappeared as soon as we arrived here. Without a trace.”
“So there’s no way out…? How can you be so calm?”
Abban shrugged, showing that he was anything but calm.
“I only know what I learned on the Albion Net. Until we got here, I thought it was just an urban legend too. There are stories of places within the old city of Sacred Albion where space-time becomes warped. If you get trapped in one of them, you’ll never get out. They say strange things happen around those parts. For example…”
Gaddy noticed that Abban had gone quiet, and as he turned to see why he also froze in place.
In the great nothingness overhead, a great shining ball of light had appeared; the light was strong, but not blinding. It stayed completely still, just out of reach.
“Things like this ball?”
“I suppose so. I imagine you’ve seen magic before?”
“I don’t know much about magic, but I do know I’d rather not get any closer to that thing.”
Gaddy snapped his fingers.
“Of course you’d say that. Though I can’t say whether this really is magic, or just some very advanced science.”
Abban’s wry smile disappeared in an instant. He heard the dogs barking.
“I heard it too. This thing might lead us to a way out, I think we should take it.”
Gaddy had already lowered his hammer-ax and was walking toward the ball. Abban reluctantly lowered his sword and made his way to the other side of it from Gaddy.
“Whoever touches it first is the winner. No hard feelings.”
Without warning the two boys ran forward and leaped to the ball of light.
They closed in on the ball like two school children in a race, and they reached it at exactly the same time.
The next moment…
There was an explosion of light and darkness.
They were faced with a desolate land, filled with distorted figures.
A black dog and a lizard warrior were the first to enter the fray, but it was a Dragon Knight that quickly took control of the battle. He stood atop a giant armored dragon wielding his sword and shield.
The Dragon Knight thrust with his sword, and a massive shockwave hit the black knight wielding a spear.
“Dragon Knight, Nehalem, the dragon from Kagero.”
“And that’s Blaster Javelin. One of the Shadow Paladins.”
Abban and Gaddy were both surprised to hear each other speak, and even more surprised by what they were saying. But where were they? They had no sense of being in a physical body. It seemed they were watching the battle unfold before them as formless observers.
“What happened to us?”
“I don’t think we’re dead. This must be a vision. A memory…”
Black flames erupted from the ground, followed by something else.
The vision came to an end.
When the boys came to, they were back on the floor in the main hall, holding hands.
It seemed that no time had passed since they first jumped for the ball of light.
Gaddy slowly let go of his friend’s hand, revealing a necklace inlaid with a red jewel in a blue and white setting.
The great doors at the end of the hall burst open before the boys had a chance to say anything, and the jet-black dogs came bounding in.
Abban pointed behind Gaddy, where a black hole had appeared.
“It’s our only way out. Jump!” shouted Gaddy.
Abban reached down and picked up Gaddy’s hammer-ax which he’d left behind.
As soon as he was sure Gaddy was through the hole he turned to face the oncoming hounds, and with a dagger drawn stepped into the hole himself.
As the darkness engulfed him, Abban could hear the voices of his pursuers, strangely distorted.
“They’ve taken the light! In the name of the Dark Knights, we must find it!”
World Setting: 中村聡