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Burning Sky Prelude – Chapter 1


Chapter 1

The rusted hinges of a heavy wooden door creak throughout the stone hall of the castle as the door slowly swings open, revealing a well-organized office on the other side. A young man peeks his hooded head inside, hoping the added shade will conceal the worry clearly written across his face. “Uh… Knight Commander Ramos, sir? You called for me?”

Ramos – the picture of a seasoned knight – sits at his desk towards the back of the room in full armor. His already harsh features look grim as can be as he furrows his brow and runs his hand through his head of grey hair. A terse “Come in, Ike,” fumbles its way from his mustached lips as he taps his fingers on the surface of the table in front of him.

The young knight gulps. Hesitantly, he pulls the rest of his body – clad in half-plate Templar armor – through the doorway. His jade green eyes dart around the room, hoping to find purchase on anything but the man across from him. But all that does is remind him of exactly who he’s dealing with as the walls are lined with more rewards and accolades than Ike’s seen in his entire life, let alone his Templar career. Medals, certificates… even some scarred old weapons, kept as trophies. Right. Looking around was a really bad idea. “Have I… done something wrong, sir?” The question barely squeaks its way out of the frightened greenhorn as he stands at attention across from his commanding officer.

Then the veteran’s response. Nothing. Not all at once. First comes an unnerving pause. Then a grunt, followed by Ramos loudly setting down his pen. In time, he rises from his seat. And that’s when Ike feels the pit in his stomach deepening. Traditionally, Templars are rather tall. With most under six feet being turned away, Ike’s relatively average height is quite short, by comparison. But Ramos… Ramos is tall, even by their standards, dwarfing the boy as he stands at his desk and looming over him with that grim face of his. Plus, still very much in his physical prime, age has made him no less intimidating. “In all my years, Ike – with all of my experience – there is still one enemy I’ve never been prepared to face…” Ike’s heart palpitations only ramp up as Ramos raises a hand, only to suddenly come to a screeching halt when he slams a sheet paper atop a tower of forms to the side of his desk, hanging his head in… relief? “Paperwork.”

“…Huh?”

Ramos grumbles and steps away from his desk, holding the bridge of his nose. “I wish I’d called you earlier. You could’ve given me a break from that hell.”

Ike laughs. Awkwardly. His posture relaxing, if only slightly. “I-is that so? Eheheh…” That’s what you nearly gave me a heart attack over?!

But the elder knight makes his way over to the old, worn-out war table in the corner, leaning over it. “As for doing something wrong… I don’t know, Ike. Have you?” A quick glance and Ike snaps right back to full attention, looking straight ahead with his arms to his side.

“N-no, sir! I haven’t, sir!”

Ramos sighs and stands upright, folding his arms. “You can stop holding your breath now, Ike. You’re fine. At ease.” All at once, Ike relaxes his posture and lets out all of the air he’d been storing up in his lungs. “Don’t relax too much. We need you sharp.”

“Sharp, sir?”

A nod and the superior knight looks his subordinate in the eye. “I have an assignment for you. It concerns the future of the Templar Order and the city of Paragon as we know them.”

In a flash, Ike’s eyes come alive. He pulls back his hood, letting free his messy, brown hair and revealing how much his face his lightened up altogether at that one statement. “W-what is it, sir? If it’s that big… are we finally dealing with the Luminite Pedaler problem? Or… wait… could this be about the Djinn? The Akuma?!”

“Worse.” And, with that, Ramos brings up his hands, placing them firmly upon Ike’s shoulder plates. “The children.”

Ike… blinks. “Children… sir?”

Ike stands, arms crossed, before a classroom of small children, all staring with large, curious eyes as their teacher introduces him. “Children,” the kindly woman begins, “We have a special visitor, today. He’s a newly-inducted Templar! And he’s being kind enough to tell us about what it’s like to join the Order. If you’re good, he might even tell you how you can be like him when you grow up!” Then she turns to take her seat at her desk. But, as she passes Ike by, she rests a hand on his shoulder, mouthing out an unsettlingly foreboding “Good luck,” before sitting down.

This… is a prank. It has to be. It doesn’t add up in the slightest, no matter how Ike goes over it. How could someone as serious as Ramos have that wicked a sense of humor? But, in any case, there’s nothing to be done about it. He’s here now. He takes a breath and nods. With a casual glance around the room, he takes in his surroundings. These kids are… what… six? This wasn’t a part of basic training, Ramos. How am I supposed to… Then his eye catches something. Towards the back of the room. A poster. A familiar one. Identical to the one hanging in his own room at his aunt and uncle’s place, in fact. On it? An illustration of the legendary Templar Icon, Baldrik the Unstoppable.

That’s when it hits him. And so, Ike imitates the pose, bringing his hands to his hips, holding his head high, and standing… well, as tall as he can. “That’s right! Recruit Ike Harper, reporting! I officially finished my training a few months ago, and-”

“So you’re a noob?” one of the students cuts in.

…Heh? “I… um… well, technically yeah. But I’ve been training for the past seven years at the Academy, so-”

Another student’s hand rockets into the air, but he doesn’t even wait to be called on before blurting out his question. “What kinds of missions have you gone on?”

“That’s… well…”

Another hand springs up. Then another. At this point, questions fly like arrows, and poor Ike without his shield. “What battles have you fought in?!”

“How many Akuma have you killed?!”

The barrage makes the boy’s head spin. Finally, he’s forced to bring up his own hands to get back the class’s attention. “Hey, hey! Easy! One question at a time, all right?” He takes a breath as the little ones all pipe down. “Good. So, raise your hand if you’ve got a question and I’ll pick you out.” Just like that, a dozen tiny hands fire up. In retrospect perhaps he should’ve expected that. Either way, he sighs and scans the room, eventually pointing out one girl towards the back of the room who’d more slowly raised her own hand. “Okay. How about you?”

The girl sits in a daze at having been pointed out at all, only to be rather abruptly dragged back to the real world at the sudden snap turn of the rest of the students in the room. That sea of eyes falling upon her. One of the more outspoken students from before speaks up as the pause reaches the point of awkwardness. “Ah, you don’t wanna listen to her. She’s weird.”

Ike arches an eyebrow at the loud one, then glances back towards the girl as she brings down her hand, seeming to shrink into herself. A timid little “U-uh… nevermind,” whispering out through her lips.

The young knight then makes his way to the back of the room and kneels at the girl’s desk, putting on a friendly smile. “Hey. What’s your name?”

The girl locks up for a moment. As if she’d somehow forgotten. “E-Ellie.”

“That’s a pretty name. I’d really like to hear your question, Ellie.”

The girl beams at Ike as he offers her a friendly smile, her gloom being swept away by a tide of warmth as an eager light builds behind her eyes. “Why… did you wanna be a Templar?”

Wow. How long had it been since Ike had heard that question? But it’s not like he really needs to think about it. As if a reflex, he stands upright and extends his hand out, pointing straight to the back of the room at the poster. “Because of him.” Every little head in the room turns to the back. “When I was little, I heard all kinds of stories about ‘Baldrik the Unstoppable.’ He was brave, strong, and just so cool! I wanted to be just like him.”

“And… did you get what you wanted?”

Just like that, Ike’s face fall as reality reaches out and grabs him, dragging him down from the idyllic little world, up in his head. He catches himself spacing out before long and recovers as best he can with a nervous laugh, rubbing the back of his head. “I’m… still working on that.” But perhaps a glimmer of that ideal world remains in sight as Ike’s gaze settles back on Ellie’s awed expression. So he grins and gives her a thumbs-up. “But, hey. If I can do it, pretty much anyone can. Trust me!”

That look in the girl’s eyes. Something about it rings incredibly familiar to the young knight as he places his hands firmly on his hips and looks out over the rest of the class, his confidence in this little adventure restored. “All right! Next question.”

Another child instantly raises his hand. “Aren’t you kinda short for a Templar?”

With that, Ike instantly deflates and he heaves a deep sigh. So much for that confidence.

A while later, the teacher stands at her desk, clapping her hands together and chirping out a sing-song “All right, class!” to her students. “It’s time for recess! But first, let’s all say goodbye to Sir Harper and thank him for being kind enough to pay us a visit!”

Ike, meanwhile, stands in the front corner of the room, nearest to the door, the life drained from his eyes as he slumps against the wall, utterly defeated. So this is what Ramos meant. Those questions… These things weren’t children. Surely they were devils. But he musters up the strength to kindly wave at mention of his name and force himself to stand properly. As the students all give their thanks in unison, he can’t help but glance at Ellie in the back, still beaming with that immensely bright smile of hers, which he returns, it relieving some of this weight he feels, pressing down on him. “No need to thank me. It’s what Templars do, right? And when you guys are all a little older, you can join the Templar Academy if you’re interested. Then you can become one of the Order, yourself!”

“Oh! Before you leave, Sir Harper, would you mind doing us the honor of letting us hear the Templar mantra?”

Every little eye in the room shimmers at that prospect and, as if automatic, Ike snaps to the Templar salute. With one hand behind his back and the other crossing his chest, two fingers extended over his heart, he shouts out those words held with such high importance to the Knights of the Order. “Sword of the Goddess, Shield of the People!”

Moments later, Ike steps out of the schoolhouse. The instant the door closes behind him, he lets out another great sigh before crumbling down into a sitting position on the front step. All the color is flushed from his body and his face is gaunt like a corpse. “I… survived.”

He rests his head on the schoolhouse door, behind him. As he collects himself, his eyes drift upward, focusing in on the brilliant trail of amber flame that so cleaves the sky overhead – The Sky Fire. A burning ring that circles the entire world of Gaea. It’s always up there. Always helping the sun and the moon illuminate the dark, uncertain world below with its own dim, warm light. A constant. Something about it is… comforting. Eventually Ike brings himself to his feet, nodding to himself. You’ve got this… And off he goes to carry on with his duties.

As Ike passes by the rear of the schoolhouse, the lively chatter of the children on the playground draws his attention, soon accompanied by rather loud shouting. The cause of the commotion? A handful of kids, all chasing one particular child around in circles, giggling all the while. Ah. This takes me back.

“Get him before he burns everyone to a crisp!” one of the pursuing children says.

Eh?

“Get back here, you dirty Djinn!”

Eh?! What kind of tag is this?!

“In the name of the Templars, I command you to stop!”

Ike blinks, now utterly baffled. But the game carries on. The fleeing child climbs to the top of the schoolyard slide and turns to his pursuers, firmly planting his hands on his hips and looking down on them all from on high with his best go at a haughty, overconfident laugh. “You’ll never catch me, Templars! And if you do, I’ll just burn you all!”

Another student – a girl – sneaks up behind the boy from the opposite end of the slide. “Not if I use my Grace to get you first!” she shouts, tackling him down the ramp and to the feet of her Templar allies. The lot of whom pretend to beat on him with toy swords.

“Nooo!” the so-called ‘Djinn’ child screams. “How… did I lose?”

The girl turns her head up and laughs with a flick of her hair. Then she strikes a dramatic pose, one hand on her hip and the other pointing down at her victim. “My Grace lets me turn invisible for a surprise attack! You never had a chance!”

At that, the boy springs to his feet. “Nuh-uh! A Grace can’t do that!”

“Can too!” the girl barks back, puffing out her cheeks and butting heads with her opponent. From there it’s just a bitter argument over what a Grace can and can’t do, leaving Ike with nothing to do but laugh to himself about the whole situation.

The young Templar watches with a skeptical look in his eyes. If only this job was that flashy. But at least they’re having fun. Though when Ike turns to leave, his eye catches someone else standing near the schoolyard fence on the opposite end. A slightly older child, just… watching. A skinny girl with sunken, reddish eyes and a small pair of horns protruding from her forehead. The sight of her leaves Ike speechless.

The girl kneels by the gate in her ragged clothing. The chain dangling from the blue, metal collar around her neck clatters as she reaches for scraps of paper, food, and the like that litter the ground. But all that does is draw attention to the bruises around the bare ankles of her otherwise pale skin where normally shackles would cling. That girl is…

A shrill noise cuts off that train of thought from over the schoolyard fence. “Hey, looks, it’s a Djinn!” one of the children says. And instantly Ike’s heart sinks. There’s only one way this can possibly go – badly.

“Ew. What’s that imp doing here?” another child sneers.

The leader of the pack – the same boy that did battle with the little girl from a moment ago – steps over to and hops the fence with a smug smirk about him. “Hey, imp! Wanna play with us?” Oh. Oh no. Ike’s entire body vibrates. His legs, in particular, feeling like they might just achieve liftoff at any moment. But he stays himself, for the moment. The Djinn pauses what she’s doing and looks up at the boy with a surprised, even hopeful look in her eyes. A look that’s all too quickly dashed. “We’re playing Djinn and Templars. It’s real easy. The Templars just gotta catch the Djinn and beat ‘em up. I say the rest of us can be the Templars and… well, hey, you don’t even have to pretend. It’s perfect, i’nnit?”

Ike winces. But the Djinn seems to take it even more gracefully than he does, returning to her task without a word. “Oi. Slave,” the boy says. “You ignoring me?” Not a single word. Before the girl can gather any more, however, the boy swats the woven basket from her hands. For a moment, she’s completely still. But eventually she bends back down and picks the basket back up, proceeding to replace its contents. As she does, he knocks it from her hands again, sending its contents flying into the street around them. The girl pauses once more, this time turning her head to him only slightly. The smug look on his face vanishes the instant he sees the glare she’s giving him through the corner of her eye. Even from the other side of the schoolyard, Ike begins to sweat bullets. Not from nerves. But from the sudden and immense rise in temperature around the area, all emanating from the one girl.

The children all scream and rush away from the fence. But the boy on the other side of it only backs away from her, tripping and falling onto his backside with a face overwrought with sheer terror. “H-help! This slave’s gonna kill me!”

Ike’s legs move before he even has a chance to think about it. But before he can get there, the teacher emerges from the schoolhouse with a long, metal yardstick in hand. “You get away from my student, you filthy imp!” She opens the door in the fence and, in one fluid motion, cracks the Djinn across the face with the measuring tool so hard that it rings like a bell.

The girl stands there in a daze, eyes wide as dinner plates. Her cheek is completely unharmed. Not even a scratch. Yet she suddenly drops to the ground in a prostrating position. The teacher raises her yardstick again but before either of them knows it, Ike is there, catching the woman by the wrist. “Sir Harper? What… are you doing?”

Yes. What is he doing? That last moment… his brain seemed to just skip over it. Now he’s here, having moved faster than his mind had even processed. All he can manage, at this point is a shaky, stammering response. “I… uh… t-that won’t be necessary. Remember, the Djinn are state property. I’ll… take it from here.”

“My, you really do take your Templar duties seriously.” Then the woman extends the yardstick to the young Templar. “Would you prefer to use this?”

“What? No!”

Just then, a deep, blunt voice interrupts the scene. “Is there a problem here?” Ike turns around and, for a moment, he swears he can feel himself shrinking. A much taller, sturdily-built Templar in heavier armor approaches the bunch. He gives Ike a once-over, then glances to the Djinn on the ground. “Did something happen with this slave?”

Ike can’t seem to muster up the courage to say anything. This guy, big as he is, with such beat up armor to go along with the scars visible on his face… he’s a scary one. The teacher, on the other hand… “Are you this slave’s handler? It attacked one of my students!”

The handler reaches down and grabs the chain dangling from the collar around the Djinn’s neck, hoisting her up that her feet leave the ground. “Is that a fact, now?” he grumbles, watching the poor thing squirm.

“Yeah!” the ‘victim’ says. “It was gonna burn me up!”

“Luckily, my students came in and told me what was happening. Sir Harper was just about to take over when you arrived.”

The handler drags the girl up to eye level with him. “Well, I guess that’s that, then.”

But as the girls struggles and flails about, Ike clenches his teeth. Then his fists. And soon he’s able to pull himself together enough to shakily speak up… albeit under his breath. “T-that’s not right…”

The handler gives Ike a glance through the corner of his eye. “Hm?”

“I said… I said that’s not the whole story, ah… sir.” The handler arches an eyebrow at the trembling thing to his flank, but allows him to go on. “This boy and his friends were harassing this Djinn while she was working. S-she… tried to ignore them, but he hopped the fence to mess with her. He wasn’t letting her do her job, so she got upset. And he pretended to be scared so she’d get beat.” Ike clears his throat and looks away from his superior, even somewhat bowing his head. “B-but, uh… she’s… she’s wearing her Luminite collar. So she can’t use her powers to hurt him anyway, right? All she did was obediently try to get her work done. So, um, it’s like that. I don’t think it’d be fair to punish her. A-and I think it’d be best not to damage state property over nothing… s-sir.”

The handler stares at Ike for a moment longer, his contempt clear to all present. He looks over the fence at all the prying eyes of the school children. Including one particularly bright-eyed girl towards the front – Ellie. Then he scoffs and drops the slave. “Right,” he says. He turns the girl around and lightly kicks her in the backside, sending her shuffling forward and away from the scene. “You. Get to the cart.”

“Um… sir? What… what are you going to do with her?”

“What else? I’m sending it to its cell. Harper, was it? What’re you meant to be doing, right now?”

Ike snaps to attention and salutes. “S-sir! I’m to report back to Knight Commander Ramos at once, sir!”

The handler grunts and lumbers off. “Best not keep him waiting, then.”

“Y-yes, sir…” Ike turns to leave. He hesitates for a moment, glancing to the slave in the distance before making his way off, holding his head low.

Ike stands at attention in Ramos’s office. The Knight Commander sits at the desk across from him, hands folded on the desktop. Meanwhile, Ike sweats a monsoon in response to his commanding officer’s intense gaze. “I see you survived. Good.”

Oi. That wasn’t funny. I nearly had about five heart attacks, back there! Frantic though Ike is on the outside… and the inside, something in his posture and his demeanor softens, if only slightly, at the thought of what’d happened. Would that girl really be okay?

Meanwhile, Ramos returns his attention to what appears to be a new mountain of paperwork, resting on the side of his desk. “I trust everything went off without a hitch, then?”

“Eh? Ah… y-yes, sir!”

Ramos’s pen hand stops and he glances up at his subordinate. “What is it, Ike?”

“I-it’s nothing, sir. Nothing you need to worry about.”

“Good to know. Now I’m worried. Ike, what happened?”

Ike turns away from Ramos, a faint mutter of “I defended a Djinn…” slinking its way from his lips in a hushed voice.

Ramos stays silent for a time, then puts down the pen, sits back in his chair, and folds his hands. “You know, Ike… age is a funny thing. As I get up there, it can be forgiven if my senses play the odd trick on me. For a moment, though, it almost sounded like you said you defended a Djinn. But that can’t be right. Can it?” Ike’s heart races and he turns his head even further away from Ramos. As if trying to do his best impression of an owl. “Ike. You didn’t prevent a Djinn from being detained, did you?”

“No! No, sir! I-I’d never-! I mean… I just meant I defended one from an unfair beating.” Hesitantly, Ike turns back to find the senior knight staring at him with a furrowed brow. So he raises his hands, rapidly waving them in front of him. “Really! Some of the children were harassing this slave, pretending to be afraid so she’d get a beating and… well, I kinda jumped in without really thinking about it. But I stopped it. That was all, sir.”

Ramos runs one hand through his silver hair. “You’re certain that’s everything, Ike?”

“Yes, sir. The teacher hit her once, but I stopped the situation from escalating. Then I convinced the handler not to punish her. I think.”

Ramos nods. “Very well.”

“Sir?”

Ramos stands and makes his way to the window, peerin through with his hands behind his back. “I’m not going to reprimand you for exercising fair judgment, Ike. I would be a terrible example of a Templar if I did.”

“T-thank you, sir.”

“I can, however, reprimand you for not thinking.” Then the Knight Commander turns away from the window, placing a hand upon Ike’s shoulder. “Ike. I admire your wanting to help everyone. But don’t let it land you in a position where you’re unable to help anyone.”

Ike bows his head. “I… Understood, sir. Thank you.”

Ramos nods, patting Ike’s shoulder before returning to his desk. “Right, then. Now that that’s settled, your next assignment. I don’t have any higher priority postings available, so I’m posting you at the Eastern Gate for the remainder of the day.”

“Gate duty again? But… sir, I-!” Ike stops himself upon seeing the rather authoritative look Ramos gives him, arched eyebrow and all. “Uh… y-yes sir.”

“Good. Dismissed.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Ike leaves the room. Once he’s outside and the door closes, his heartrate slows and he takes a breath. Being in there never gets any less stressful… Eventually he winds up wandering the halls of Castle Verity – headquarters of the Templar Order in the city of Paragon, and all throughout Etrium. He stops himself in the main hall where, on the far side of the room, stands a large, black, marble wall with several names engraved into it. All of knights, both past and present, who’ve become significant within the Creed. Several names on the list are marked with symbols. Some have a sun – the symbol for the coveted Sacred Knight rank. Others have balance scales – the symbols of the Justices, who act as the twin heads of the Templar Order, such as Ardith Haymes and Johan Siegbert, the current holders of that title.

Ike runs his finger down the list. Also among the names is Ramos Westcott, whose name is accompanied by a symbol resembling a sword and shield – a crest given to those honored with the title of Great Knight. I have the attention of someone as awesome as this. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. Lucky… But just a few spaces away from that name, bearing an identical symbol, is none other than Baldrik Jaeger.

Suddenly a hand slaps itself down on Ike’s shoulder, joined by the arm that wraps around him. “Dreaming about having your name up there, again, bud?” Ah. That carefree tone. That familiar attitude. Ike sighs and glances to the side, where a taller young knight stands, giving him a cheesy grin. Yup. Figures.

Ike gives the guy a snide grin. “It’s better than not having any aspirations… Huck.”

Huck steps back, aghast and dismayed… at least… his best approximation of what those things would look like. “Urk! You wound me, sir!” But he eases off and steps back with a casual shrug. “I like to think of it as being comfortable where I am, thanks. You should try it, sometime. Who knows? Maybe you’ll stop getting lectured every day.”

The pair proceed to walk down the hall. “Yeah, well, where’d be the fun in that? Then you’d never come by to give me a hard time.”

“Aw. He loves me. So. Where’re you off to?”

Ike exhales like a deflating balloon. “Gate duty. You?”

“Chapel.”

“Well, I guess we’ll be together in boredom, at least.”

Huck tilts his head back, bringing a fist to his chin to ponder the thought for a second. “You think so? I mean… the chapel’s got chairs, music, food, drinks…”

“Sounds terrible. Wanna trade?”

Huck and Ike bump fists. “Sorry friend.” The duo make their way out of the castle, where their paths diverge, Huck shoving a hand in his pocket and waving with his back to Ike as he saunters off. “Don’t need Ramos dragging me into his office next. I’ll see you at the barracks, later.” With Huck disappearing into the city, Ike heads off on his own.

Several hours later, Ike stands at the Eastern Gate, arms folded. To his right is an older, more seasoned knight. Next to him, Ike looks like a child in a costume. True to the standard, the man towers over the boy to such an extent that Ike is nearly engulfed by just his shadow. As the sun sets, Ike yawns, not out of exhaustion, but out of pure, unmitigated boredom.

Before long, a band of traveling merchants approaches and the other knight nods for Ike to follow. “Good evening, folks,” the veteran Templar says. “Welcome to Paragon.”

“We’re going to need to see your papers, please,” Ike adds.

The leader of the merchants doubles back in a rather theatrical display of contempt for the mere idea. An indignant “Papers?” slides from his lips. “No one told us about papers.”

Ike remains utterly uncaring. “That’s unfortunate, sir. But I’m afraid we can’t let you into the city with your wares unless you provide the necessary permits.”

The merchant scoffs. “Permits, indeed. You would ask this of a foreigner?”

“Yes, sir. You can fill out the necessary papers at the post office, just inside the gate,” Ike explains, his tone as dry as a desert. Meanwhile, he points over his shoulder with all the enthusiasm of a scarecrow. “Then you can give them to us and we’ll deliver them to the appropriate authorities who’ll validate them within the next two days. Until then, you’re free to enter the city without your wares. But we’ll have to search you.”

One of the female merchants approaches the two Templars. “Is that so?” She twirls her long, brunette hair with her finger and leans into Ike’s personal space like a coy schoolgirl with a crush, making certain he’s able to take in her sweet scented perfume. “Are you sure you can’t make some sort of exception for us? We’ve been traveling so very long.”

Ike stares at the woman, completely unflinching. The most reaction he extends her way is a disinterested blink. “Certainly, madam. We can escort you into the city… in handcuffs. Would that be acceptable?”

The temptress steps back, visibly appalled at Ike’s complete immunity to her wiles. She looks to the veteran, but the older knight grins at the exchange. “Lady, you wanna get through to that one, you’ll have to try harder’n any brothel. Now, then. Off you lot go. You’re free to try bribery, of course. But, just as a reminder, that’d be a crime. Unless you weary travelers are all right restin’ your sore bones in a cell, for the night.”

Ike shakes his head with a shrug. “Can’t think of any reason it’d be a problem. Unless, of course, you had something to hide.”

The merchant leader sneers, brushing by the knights with a grumbled “Of course not. Come. We will do as the kindly guards suggest.” And so his companions follow suit.

As the doors open for the merchant entourage to enter the city, two more guards exit. “All right. Your shift’s up. Tag out.”

Ah. Finally. For just a moment, Ike’s relief is comparable to the arrival of the cavalry. In any event, he’s more then ready to be done with this. But just as he steps through the doors, he finds himself greeted by a young lady in a white and red clergy robe. Pulling the hood back, she reveals her green eyes and short, blonde hair, a cheerful grin plastered across her face. At her feet are a number of paper bags, filled to the top with groceries. “Heya, cousin! How was work?”

Later, Ike finds himself walking down the streets with his cousin, holding the bag of groceries she’d brought with her. While she’s especially talkative, Ike remains dead silent. Though he’s looking ahead, his eyes are foggy and dim. All of the girl’s words register as little more than white noise. A faint buzzing, traveling in one ear and out the other. When she catches on, she pouts at his ignoring her. After repeated attempts to get his attention, she finally walks around in front of him, cutting him off. “Ike!”

Ike stops just shy of walking right into the girl. “H-huh? What is it, Amelie?”

“What’s with you? It’s like you’re on another planet.” Her mouth suddenly curls into a catty grin and she slides over to him, bringing a hand over her mouth. “Thinkin’ about a girl? Ike, you dog.”

Ike’s face dims. “No.”

Amelie leans against her cousin, throwing an arm over his shoulder. “Aw, don’t be like that. What’s her name? Ooh! Is it one of the clergy sisters? Don’t worry, cuzzo! I can keep a secret! Scout’s honor!”

“It’s not a girl, Amelie.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. You were probably just thinking about Templar stuff. Geez, you’re so predictable. It’s really no fun messing with you, anymore, you know that? I still remember the good old days, when we were kids and you used to get all bent out of shape over everything.”

“Oi. Good for who, exactly?”

Sticking her tongue out at Ike, Amelie spins on her heel and continues forward, looking to the sky. “I’m just saying. You never seem to think about anything else. Mom and Dad invited you to dinner ‘cause they hardly ever see or hear from you, you know.” There she stops, crossing her arms and cutting Ike a contemptuous glance over her shoulder. “And you never wanna hear how my day went. But I always ask about yours.”

Ah. There it is. The sharp edge of guilt that Amelie wields as fatally as any blade. It pierces through Ike like a javelin. Indeed, the clergy had trained her well. With a heavy sigh, he catches up and matches her pace, avoiding eye contact, quietly muttering. “Sorry.” At that moment, he feels a pressure atop his head. Come to find Amelie having brought her hand down upon it in a light chop with a cheek-to-cheek grin.

“Well, as long as my boneheaded cousin gets the picture.”

“So… how was your-?”

“You don’t have to do that. I’d rather you thought to do it on your own. It just feels more natural, that way, you know? So. What’s on your mind?”

“Huh?”

Amelie gives Ike the side-eye as the two of them continue down the streets of Paragon. “What super important Templar stuff has you so distracted, this time?”

Her playful tone aside, Amelie has a point. As Ike thinks back, he comes to countless talks between the two of them. She always had shown genuine concern for his wellbeing, listening whenever something was on his mind. Even if she always did so in her own… “unique” way. And her advice wasn’t always exactly the best. Knowing her, she wouldn’t stop prying. Indeed, this girl is a perfect fit for the clergy. Ike takes a breath. “I… got stuck with gate duty.”

“Well… yeah. That’s how I found you. Hm…” Then she huffs, folding her hands behind her head. “Still… that is pretty lame, though.”

“Yeah…”

Amelie takes in Ike’s rather defeated demeanor and turns to him with a smile. “But, hey! If ya stick it out a little longer, I’m sure they’ll move you on to better stuff. You’ve already got the personal attention of a Great Knight, yeah?”

Ike grimaces, his grip around the handles of the grocery bags tightening. “Sure, but I won’t ever become one by standing in front of a gate, all day, Amelie.”

Amelie’s face dims, her head tilts down and she stares at the street. It takes a second for Ike to realize she’s stopped walking with him, turning around once she’s quite a ways behind. “Hey… Ike? Why… do you wanna be a Great Knight so badly?” Her eyes lose that sparkle that makes her seem so lively, being overtaken with a murky, lonely gloom. “Can’t you settle for being a good one, instead?”

“What?”

Amelie winces at Ike’s curt response, but she tips her head back up with a halfhearted smile. “I mean… why do you need to be Baldrik? What’s wrong with just being Ike? He seems like a pretty okay guy to me.”

Ike stares at Amelie, that lonely look in her eyes making his heart sink, even through that fake smile. Finally, he turns his head up, looking to the sky. “Someone else asked me something similar, today.” His mind flashes back to Ellie at the school and the look on her face when he spoke to her. “It’s not… that there’s anything wrong with being Ike. But… Ike can’t help anyone. A Great Knight like Ramos, like Baldrik… they’ve saved more people than anyone can count. Baldrik isn’t just my hero. He’s my ideal.” Then he turns back to Amelie with a smile. “Who wouldn’t want to be like him?

Amelie’s head dips, momentarily, but then she brings it up with her big smile returning. The spring back in her step, she catches up and passes Ike entirely. “Well, when you put it that way!” But once she’s in front of Ike, her smile shatters and that sad look overtakes her again. A look he never sees. “Dummy.”

To Be Continued…

Next Chapter

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